May 26, 2009

Tonight our program will focus on Ecotopian News from around the world. We’ll look at some news stories—all published within the month—that tell us about the state of the air, earth, water, and fire. With each of these segments, we will include some sources for do-it-yourself ecotopianism—ways you can work in your home, neighborhood, and the community to help preserve and rescue the earth.

Listen to Ecotopia #34, Ecotopian News, now!


From the Sunday, May. 24, edition of the San Luis Obispo times comes this about air quality. David Sneed writes: of a flag system at a local elementary school that announces air quality:

A new flag flutters on the pole at Carrisa Plains School just below Old Glory and the California state flag. Most days, it will be a green flag, occasionally yellow and rarely orange or red. The color of the flag indicates the day’s air quality

On May 12, Carrisa Plains became the first school in San Luis Obispo County to participate in a new outreach program designed to raise public awareness about air quality, said Arlin Genet, spokeswoman for the county Air Pollution Control District. The color-coded flag system is part of the national Air Quality Index program. Its purpose is to communicate daily air-quality information so that people can take precautions when their area is impacted by smoke from wildfires, dust or other air quality problems.

“Until now, we haven’t had the resources to implement it in the county,” Arlin Genet said. The day’s flag color is based on ozone and particulate levels. Both are lung irritants that can cause a variety of health problems…. The air district has enough money to enroll 10 schools in the program. Money for more schools will become available in July with the arrival of a new fiscal year.

Intrigued by the San Luis story, we went online to read about air quality alerts, and we were amazed and discouraged to Google up over 75 air quality warnings in just the past week.

It probably comes as no surprise that Air Quality in Iraq is causing military personnel to have allergic reactions. Air Quality Tips reports:

Careful analysis of over 6,000 soldiers’ medical records has revealed that troops deployed to the Middle East are at an increased risk for developing allergic diseases.  The comparison was made between soldiers who had served in the Persian Gulf and soldiers who were stationed stateside.  “All of them say they didn’t have allergies before [they served],” remarks researcher Anthony Szema, M.D., of Northport Veterans Affairs Medical Center in Northport, N.Y.

The numbers show that 9.9% of soldiers in the middle east were developing allergies or asthma while only 5.1% of homeland stationed personnel were experiencing symptoms.  This ratio held true for both men and women troops and led researchers to ask why there was such a disparity between the number of cases occurring only in the U.S. versus cases with time spent in Iraq and its surrounding area.

The study was conducted after the Department of Defense noted that 13% of all medic visits in Iraq were for new cases of allergies, asthma or other respiratory ailments.  After being discharged, soldiers were showing up at VA Hospitals with complaints about prolonged periods of coughing, stuffy nose and wheezing.

Experts say that much more study is needed to accurately pinpoint the cause of the pattern in developing new cases of allergies, but they do have an idea of some of the likely culprits.  The tents and trailers that soldiers inhabit in the desert climate are often choked with dust that contributes to general lung and throat irritation.  Air conditioners that are used in these settings provide moisture that allows dust mite populations to explode.  Another factor that may contribute to the problem could be lung injury due to the high amount of pollution soldiers have inhaled while in the Middle East.

The recommendation made to the soldiers was to wear a protective dust mask for immediate and protection against pollution and allergens,

Other bad air news comes from James Bruggers, of the Louisville Record-Courier who reports that :

A toxic chemical once used to dry-clean clothes, extinguish fires, and even clean collectable stamps was mostly phased out of production more than a decade ago, yet it lingers in Louisville’s air and around the world…Carbon tetrachloride is still detected by air-quality monitoring equipment run by the University of Louisville, even though Louisville industries have reported no emissions of it since 1990 and dry cleaners haven’t used it for at least 17years […] Most uses of carbon tetrachloride were discontinued in the United States for health and safety reasons in the mid-1960s to the mid-1980s. The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency classified the chemical as a probable human carcinogen that was also known to damage the liver, kidneys and brain. It was largely phased out of production worldwide in 1996 to protect the Earth’s ozone layer. But for nine years since U of L started monitoring for toxic chemicals in Louisville air, carbon tet has been detected at levels that could cause between one and 100 additional cancer cases among 1 million people over a lifetime of exposure — or up to 100 times higher than the city deems safe.[…] and

And in the Houston Chronicle, Matthew Tresaugue reports a new study to discover what might seem to be pretty obvious, that :

[…] emissions coming from flares at refineries and chemical plants may play in the formation of smog. The $3 million project — which involves scientists from the University of Houston, University of California at Los Angeles and Pacific Northwest National Laboratory, among other institutions — targets the releases of chemicals known as radical precursors, including formaldehyde, that may exacerbate the eight-county region’s smog problem more than previously realized. An estimated 1,600 tons of smog-forming nitrogen oxides and volatile organic compounds are released in the Houston region each day. They mix with sunlight to form ozone, a colorless gas that can cause lung damage.

We don’t want to dwell overmuch on the bad air news, though it is important to see that air pollution problems are enormous and complex. One optimistic bit of news comes from Green Right Now reports from ABC TV in Los Angeles:

The U S D[epartment of] A[griculture]’s Natural Resources Conservation Service says it will add $5 million to California’s air quality resources. With the grant, California has received a total of $20.9 million from NRCS to help farmers and ranchers reduce air quality emissions from off-road mobile or stationary agricultural sources.

The primary goal of this new portion of the Environmental Quality Incentives Program is to help farmers and ranchers attain the standards set by the National Ambient Air Quality Standards. Producers in the 36 California counties that are currently not in compliance with one or more of these standards.

[…] The funds help pay for practices that have been shown to reduce ozone precursors, Volatile Organic Compounds (VOC), particulate matter and fine emissions from agricultural sources. The agency says applications will be ranked and funded based on the amount of emission reductions achieved in the proposed plan. The 36 eligible [presently noncompliant] counties [include] Amador, Butte, Nevada, Placer, Stanislaus, Sutter, and Yolo.

You may recall that we talked about the effects of VOCs and other air pollutants in our interview with the author of The Body Toxic, Nina Baker. You can listen to that interview by going to our archives for September 23, 2008, where you will also find links to informative sites on toxins and the environment.


From the San Francisco’s “” comes this story from a Denver writer, Colleen Smith, on religious groups’ acknowledgement of the need to care for the earth: She reviews: Bottom of Form“Oneness: Great Principles Shared By All Religions”, a book by Jeffrey Moses, with a foreword by the Dalai Lama.

Jeffrey Moses writes:

“The world’s scriptures were written long before the earth was burdened with the intense levels of pollution that we have today. Even so, each religion emphasizes the importance of preserving the indigenous resources and beauty of our planet.

“Our very existence depends upon the normal, healthful interaction of many different levels of the natural world—ranging from the smallest microbes to the vastness of the seas and atmosphere. When nature is defiled, every person ultimately suffers. For this reason, every religion states that nature should be preserved and that we must be aware and responsible for our interactions with the earth.

“Preserving the ecology may be a problem affecting society as a whole, but the solution must come on the level of individuals. Only when people understand the universality of their own inner nature can they live harmoniously with the rest of the natural world. This is the basis for care of our planet: the growing worldwide awareness that the inner self of every person touches the universal Being, uniting every person and every thing on earth.”

• From Christianity: “The earth which drinketh in the rain that cometh oft upon it, and bringeth forth herbs…receiveth blessing from God.”

• From Buddhism: “Do not contaminate the water. Do not throw your waste or leftover food into rivers and lakes. In this way, you guard the lives of all living beings abiding therein.”

• Islam “There is no Muslim who planteth a tree, or soweth a field, and man, birds or beasts benefit from them, but it is a charity for him.

• Araphaho Native American: “Take only what you need and leave the land as you found it.”

• Hinduism “Care should always be taken of trees and forests because of the many healthful effects they have for mankind.”

• Confucianism.“If the seasons of agriculture be not interfered with, the grain will be more than can be eaten. If close nets are not allowed to enter the pools and ponds, the fish and turtles will be more than can be consumed. If the axes enter the hill-forests only at the proper times, the wood will be more than can be used.”

Yet recovering from the damage we have done to the earth is not easy. Xinhua, the Chinese news agency reports in a story by Guo Likun that Chinese Farmers are pinning hope on “Soil Doctors” to Cure Polluted Land. Guo wrtes:

Eight years after his arable land was polluted by heavy metals, Zhou Xiaobing finally saw hope of a harvest out of the infertility.

“I don’t know what magic they used, but, you see, the land is covered with plants again,” said the 37-year-old South China farmer […]

In 2001, flood water from the Huanjiang River carried mineral processing industry wastes from tailings dams of three major mining companies on the upper reaches to lower watercourses, causing infertility in more than 5,000 mu (about 750 acres) of arable land including Zhou’s 0.6 mu.

“This place didn’t even grow a blade of grass at that time,” Zhou said, standing beside his land, which, he claimed, used to yield 500 kilograms of grains a year. Now it is part of a 30-mu soil recovery base set up by one of China’s leading soil cleaning experts Chen Tongbin and his team in 2005.

Chen uses plants, such as a home-grown fern, to “suck up” heavy metals like arsenic, copper and zinc, from contaminated soil.

[…] They [then alternated rows of] the fern and cash crops including maize, sugar cane, and mulberry….

“We can rehabilitate the land and have yields at the same time,” he said. “It could help to increase farmer’s income.”

Last year, the maize in the [experimental area] grew so [well] villagers flocked to harvest [it], Chen said. His team members had to be on guard to tell the villagers the maize was not safe yet for eating as poisonous elements had not been cleaned up. […]

Through three years of rehabilitation […], the soil’s PH value got back to normal, the amount of arsenic in the soil was cut by 12 percent, the yield and quality of mulberry leaves had not been affected, and heavy metal contained in silk and silkworm pupa did not exceed the national level, according to the Center for Environmental Remediation.

Compared to water and air, soil contamination is the most dangerous because it is hidden and can only be reversed by human intervention as nature cannot do it, Chen said.

A recent publication called The New Orleans Residents’ Guide to Do-It-Yourself Soil Cleanup Using Natural Processes offers exactly what the title advertises. It advises that people whose soil has been contaminated should first get a soil test, then use “phytoremediation”—plants, to clean the soil. They write:

Plants are one of the main ways to remove toxins from your yard and to improve soil health. … Some absorb toxins in significant amounts—these are called hyper-accumulators. […] Some of the best hyperaccumulators are sunflowers and Indian mustard greens. Sunflowers extract lead but do not store any in their seeds, so they are safe to eat.

Among other plants recommended by this project are peas, Asiatic Dayflower, Brake Fern, Lambsquarters, Spinach, Carrots, Radish, Corn, and Carrots.

They also have recommendations for the use of mushrooms and fungi (mycoremediation) and the kinds of bacteria that develop in compost tea.

And we’ll conclude this segment on an Ecotopian Earth with a story by high school student Victoria Viksne from Vista del Lago High School in Moreno Valley, Calif. with A few suggestions to make your prom night greener for nature’s sake. She writes:

Prom is a night with a lot of impact — on young lives and on the environment. Just think of the clothes bought and used for one night and those gas-guzzling limos, and then extrapolate that to the number of proms happening every spring across the country. The waste adds up and it’s not pretty.  If every high schooler around the country went green for prom, our carbon footprint would be decreased. She recommends:

  • Be conscious of your beauty products
    One way to go green for prom is to buy all-natural makeup or hair products that also use recycled materials for packaging. It is better for the environment and often your skin. Also, make sure the products you buy are not tested on animals. Companies that bother to go organic probably also produce their products without blinding bunnies in test labs, but make sure.

    Another thing to check is that your hair spray does not contain CFCs, or chlorofluorocarbons. A tight style isn’t worth a hole in the ozone layer. […]

  • Look cool, look green
    Head to a local vintage clothing shop or thrift store. Vintage has never been cooler, and it’s a sure way to avoid wearing the same thing as someone else at the prom. No way someone else will be sporting that velvet suit you got at Goodwill. Why? Because used clothing wasn’t likely gunned out of a big factory recently. You won’t find your dress in eight other sizes and colors; you are guaranteed to be unique. You will also be making real use of post-consumer products instead of buying all-new materials. That’s reducing your footprint.
  • Ditch the limo
    Another way to go green for prom is to not splurge on that stretch limo.  Such vehicles are not fuel-efficient and can have high rental fees. It may sound lame, but carpool. Get the person in your date group with the nicest ride to drive so you don’t skimp on the glam.,0,7846744.story


First a few statistics from Information Please about the amount and quality of water on the earth:

The Antarctic Icecap is the largest supply of fresh water, representing nearly 2% of the world’s total. […] The amount of water in our atmosphere is over 10 times as much as the water in all the rivers taken together. The fresh water actually available for human use in lakes and rivers and the accessible ground water amount to only about one-third of 1% of the world’s total water supply.

97.2 % of the world’s water is found in the oceans. It’s thus disturbing to read of the major sources of debris in the world’s oceans. The 2006 International Coastal Cleanup enlisted half a million people in 70 countries in an effort that removed 7 million pounds of garbage from our oceans, including:
1,922,830 cigarettes and cigarette filters    632,161 food wrappers and containers
539,832 caps and lids
438,763 plastic and 328,239 glass beverage bottles
354,292 bags
317,447 cups, plates, knives, forks, and spoons

Even more disturbing is to learn that about 42% of the world’s population, or 2.6 billion people, live in families with no proper means of sanitation, and 1.1 billion do not have access to safe drinking water. Lack of water supply and sanitation services kills about 4,500 children a day.

The quest for clean reliable water sources is obviously one of the most crucial problems facing the world, and many argue that wars will be fought over water supply.  One ongoing war is between the people of Owens Valley, California, and the thirsty City of Los Angeles Water Department. As many of you know, in the first two decades of the twentieth century, Los Angeles bought up water rights in Owens Valley, and under the supervision of John Mulholland, built the Los Angeles Aqueduct and pipeline 250 miles to the city. Owens Valley was desiccated, and Los Angeles developed as an oasis. But according to a new story in the Los Angeles times, “In the Owens Valley, resentment again flows with the water.” Louis Sahagun reports from Lone Pine:

The Los Angeles Department of Water and Power is quietly prospecting once again for land and water rights in the Owens Valley, sparking tense disputes among residents over the agency’s influence on their economic stability. […].

“Sustainable communities — that’s what they are sucking out of this place along with our water,” said Scott Palamar, a photographer who moved to Lone Pine in July after his Malibu home was destroyed by a brush fire in 2007. “The DWP only wants just enough infrastructure to support its own operations. Beyond that, they don’t seem to care.”

The trouble started when a local real estate broker learned that the DWP, which already owns 25% of the Owens Valley floor, plans to buy 100 acres of privately held stream-side property just west of Independence, the Inyo County seat, for an estimated $4 million to $5 million. […]

“They are creating a net loss of private land in Inyo County and destroying our towns in the process,” said Jenifer Castaneda, a Lone Pine real estate broker and community activist who helped write the petition. “If they are going to take what little available private land there is left in the valley out of circulation, they should make an equal amount of land available in communities that are struggling to survive.”

“I understand their sentiments” and “I’m open to having conversations” about releasing property, DWP General Manger David Nahai said in an interview.

But he also pointed out that three years of drought, cutbacks in state water allocations and rationing and its $500-million dust-mitigation project at Owens Lake have left the agency trying to cope with “a seriously overburdened water supply.”

In the meantime, the communities of Olancha, Lone Pine, Independence and Big Pine continue to deteriorate, with most of their developable land controlled by the DWP.,0,1564832.story

And as we learned on this program three weeks ago in our interviews with Steve Rothert of American Rivers and Greg Werner of the Nature Conservancy, there is increasing demand for the absorption of northstate water into the Southern California water cistern. Just this week, the San Jose Mercury News published an investigative story that headlines: Pumping water and cash from Delta. Mike Taugher reports:

As the West Coast’s largest estuary plunged to the brink of collapse from 2000 to 2007, state water officials pumped unprecedented amounts of water out of the Delta only to effectively buy some of it back at taxpayer expense for a failed environmental protection plan ]…].

The “environmental water account” set up in 2000 to improve the Delta ecosystem spent nearly $200 million mostly to benefit water users while also creating a cash stream for private landowners and water agencies in the Bakersfield area.

Financed with taxpayer-backed environment and water bonds, the program spent most of its money in Kern County, a largely agricultural region at the southern end of the San Joaquin Valley. There, water was purchased from the state and then traded back to the account for a higher price.

The proceeds were used to fund an employee retirement plan, buy land and groundwater storage facilities and pay miscellaneous costs to keep water bills low, documents and interviews show.

Revenues from those sales also might have helped finance a lawsuit against the Department of Water Resources, the same agency that wrote the checks, documents show.

No one appears to have benefitted more than companies owned or controlled by Stewart Resnick, a Beverly Hills billionaire, philanthropist and major political donor whose companies, including Paramount Farms, own more than 115,000 acres in Kern County.

Those companies sold $30.6 million of water to the state program, participated as a partner in an additional $16 million in sales and received an additional $3.8 million in checks and credits for sales through public water agencies, documents show.

“For a program that was supposed to benefit the environment, it apparently did two things — it didn’t benefit the environment and it appears to have enriched private individuals using public money,” said Jonas Minton, a water policy adviser to the Planning and Conservation League, a California environmental advocacy group.

Representatives of Resnick’s farm and water companies did not respond to repeated requests for interviews. […]

The state Department of Water Resources also declined to comment for this story.

There’s quite a bit more to this story, which we recommend that you read at

Given that story of ecoabuse, we are probably allowed to be a bit skeptical about a story from the San Franciso Chronicle by Kelly Zito, that California will receive $440 million in economic stimulus money to ease water problems. Kelly writes:

The money, in the form of grants, subsidies and low-interest loans, is expected to spur hundreds of new water infrastructure projects as well as jump-start those stalled by California’s budget disaster, state and federal officials said.

The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency [… has] awarded $280 million to the State Water Resources Control Board’s Clean Water State Revolving Fund program for wastewater treatment, pollution control and estuary management projects. The state Department of Public Health’s Drinking Water State Revolving Fund program received $159 million for drinking-water infrastructure improvements.

The award is one slice of the $6 billion in water system improvement funds contained in President Obama’s American Recovery and Investment Act of 2009 – Washington’s effort to shore up the nation’s infrastructure while providing much-needed jobs.

The money comes with a catch – about 20 percent of it must go toward conservation, green infrastructure and energy-efficiency projects. In addition, the agencies will strongly favor “shovel-ready” projects because funds not used by February will disappear.

And as we close this segment on water news on Ecotopia, we want to remind you to check out the website of the Butte Environmental Council, to keep track of BEC’s efforts on our behalf to keep northstate groundwater from being shipped to the south.

Fire (Energy)

In this final segment of Ecotopia, we look at the environmental news concerning fire—or, more specifically, the oil and gasoline that we burn in our internal combustion engines.

You may recall that last December we interviewed Antonia Juhaz of Global Exchange, who has written on The Tyranny of Oil. We just received a press release concerning a new report written by Juhaz concerning Chevron Oil and its activities

Tomorrow, the 27th, Chevron will hold its annual stockholder’s meeting and will be presented with the 2008 annual report, what Antonia Juhaz and activist Nick Magel call

“a glossy celebration of the company’s most profitable year in its history and one in which CEO David O’Reilly became the 15th highest paid U.S. chief executive, with nearly $50 million in total 2008 compensation.”

“What Chevron’s annual report does not tell its shareholders is the true cost paid for those financial returns, or the global movement gaining voice and strength against Chevron’s abuses.”

Their report is called, “The True Cost of Chevron: an Alternative Annual Report.” . It covers

“Chevron’s operations, political control, consumer abuse, and false promises, [and] provides the most comprehensive exposé of Chevron’s operations – and the communities in struggle against them – ever compiled. It includes reports from Alaska, California, Colorado, Florida, the Gulf Coast, Mississippi, New Jersey, New York, Utah, Washington, D.C, and Wyoming; internationally across Angola, Burma, Canada, Chad, Cameroon, Ecuador, Iraq, Kazakhstan, Nigeria, and the Philippines.

The activists will then use proxies to enter Chevron on May 27 during its annual general meeting to discuss the report with shareholders while a protest/rally is held at Chevron’s front gates.

That event should make the evening news tomorrow evening. Meanwhile, you can read about the report at and you can listen to our interview with Antonia Juhasz at–just look in the archives for the December 18 show.

In that program, we also talked with Antonia Juhasz about the manipulation of oil prices—especially given that world oil consumption has gone down, partly due to people’s good behavior and environmental consciousness, but in no small measure due to the failing economy. More insights into current conditions are given in a story appearing in the SF Chronicle on Sunday, by David Baker, Supply up, demand down, but oil prices rise. In an article that puts the lie to everything we learned in our high school economics class , he writes;

Recessions usually bring cheap oil and gasoline.

But not now. And that has analysts worried that another fuel-price spike could be on the way.

Crude oil, the lifeblood of the global economy, costs $61.67, even as the world struggles through the worst recession since World War II. And prices are rising, climbing 26 percent in the last month.

Gas prices have jumped as a result, rising 12 cents in California last week to reach an average of $2.62 for a gallon of regular.

Compared with last year’s record oil price of $145.29 per barrel for oil sold on the New York Mercantile Exchange, $61 may not sound like much. But it’s twice the historic average for petroleum, which used to trade from $20 to $30. Prices briefly fell below $34 in December and February, but they’ve rebounded with a vengeance.

The economy hasn’t [recovered]. But oil traders are betting that the recession is at or near its worst, meaning a recovery could start later this year and drive up global demand for oil again. They’re trading on the possibility of a recovery, rather than a recovery itself. [Italics added….]

“The fact it’s going up now on nada is proof that speculators are still in control,” said Judy Dugan, research director with the nonprofit group Consumer Watchdog. “Unless there are curbs in place, it obviously could shoot through the roof again.”

[…] Even after last summer’s economic meltdown ended the bull market for oil and sent gas prices tumbling, drivers kept buying less. Americans used 2.7 percent less gasoline in the last four weeks than they did during the same period last year, according to the Energy Information Administration, part of the U.S. Department of Energy.

Such weak sales should be keeping oil prices low. But traders have been gambling that the recession has finally bottomed out, with a recovery perhaps starting later this year. That would increase worldwide demand for petroleum.

“I think there’s no question that supply-demand fundamentals are not reflected in the current (oil) price,” said Tyson Slocum, director of the energy program at the Public Citizen watchdog group, which supports cracking down on oil-market speculation. “Is this a preview to $145 oil? I don’t think so. But I think this underscores the need to increase oversight of these markets.”

On that somewhat bewildering note, we wrap up this edition of Ecotopia, where we have looked a recent news stories on the environmentalism of air, earth, water, and fire.

Playlist for Ecotopia $34: Ecotopian News

1. I Remember California 5:04 R.E.M. Green

2. Slower Than Guns (LP Version) 3:50 Iron Butterfly Metamorphosis

3. Death Of Mother Nature Suite (Album Version) 7:54 Kansas Kansas

4. Don’t Go Near The Water (2000 Digital Remaster) 2:43 The Beach Boys Sunflower/Surf’s Up

5. Drive My Car 2:30 The Beatles Rubber Soul

6. Weave Me the Sunshine 4:28 Peter, Paul And Mary The Very Best of Peter, Paul and Mary

7. Powerhouse 2:56 Don Byron Bug Music

8. Rain Rain Beautiful Rain 3:05 Ladysmith Black Mambazo Long Walk to Freedom