December 2010

Monthly Archive

Ecotopia #116 Auld Lang Syne

Posted by on 28 Dec 2010 | Tagged as: Uncategorized

28 December 2010

Tonight our program is entitled “Auld Lang Syne,” the traditional New Year’s Eve hymn with lyrics by Scotsman Bobbie Burns. WikiPedia helped us remember what that phrase actually means: “The song’s Scots title may be translated into English literally as ‘old long since’, or more idiomatically, ‘long long ago’, ‘days gone by’ or ‘old times.'”  But we’re not going to be particularly nostalgic for the year 2010. We’re going to open with a particularly unsentimental review of some of the worst and most discouraging environmental news from the past twelve months. Then we’ll grow a little more positive and remind us all of some of the positive achievements on the Ecotopian front during the last calendar year. We’ll also take a candid view of prospects and environmental priorities for 2011. We’ll close, not with Auld Lang Syne, but with our usual theme song, Peter, Paul, and Mary’s perpetually upbeat: “Weave me the sunshine, out of the falling rain,” a pretty good metaphor for ecotopian dreams and possibilities.

Listen to the Program

The Mostly Bad News:

This is Ecotopia on KZFR , and tonight we are reviewing environmental news from 2010, the good, the bad, and the ugly. We’ll start with the obviously ugly: the Gulf Oil Spill. Here’s an December 26 reflection on that disaster by Rob Edwards of the Herald Scotland newspaper. He writes:

 It started around 9.45 pm on April 20.

Methane gas came shooting out of BP’s Deepwater Horizon oil well in the Gulf of Mexico, then ignited and exploded. The ensuing fire engulfed the rig, killing 11 workers. And then the oil started gushing into the sea, becoming the largest accidental marine oil spill in history, and the worst environmental disaster so far faced by the US.

For the next three months it kept on gushing, and estimates of the volume of oil escaping every day kept rising. BP initially suggested it might be 1000 barrels day, but then US authorities said it could be 5000, then 30,000, then 60,000 barrels a day.

In total, nearly five million barrels of oil are now thought to have spilled into the sea between April 20 and July 15, when the well was eventually capped. That’s more than 200 million gallons – a massive amount of the black stuff, which has resulted in huge pollution problems.

In May, 6814 square miles of water were closed to all fishing by the US Government, an area that was increased to nearly 87,000 square miles in June. That covered more than a third of all the federally-controlled waters in the Gulf of Mexico.

The costs to the fishing industry were estimated at $2.5 billion. The federal government officially declared a fisheries disaster in Alabama, Mississippi and Louisiana.

Although the fishing bans were gradually relaxed, as late as November some 4200 square miles had to be re-closed to shrimping after balls of tar were found in nets. In the same month the length of Louisiana shoreline affected by the oil was said to extend to 320 miles.

The damage to wildlife has been widespread. By November more than 6800 dead animals had been collected from the area, including 6100 birds, 600 sea turtles and 100 dolphins and other mammals.

Dolphins were reported to be spouting oil from their blowholes, and some were said to be “acting drunk”. The Gulf of Mexico is very rich in animal life and hundreds of endangered species are at risk, including five kinds of turtle.

But the consequences have resounded far beyond local fishing and wildlife, rocking boardrooms and governments. Estimates of the total economic losses due to the disaster have varied from $3 billion to $30bn – and someone is going to have to pay.

BP took an immediate hit, losing more than $105 million from its market value a month after the accident. It agreed to put $20bn into a reparation fund, and reported a second-quarter loss of $17bn, its first in 18 years.

The company’s chief executive, Tony Hayward, was widely vilified and lost his job because of the disaster. He never really recovered from telling a reporter in May: “There’s no-one who wants this thing over more than I do – I’d like my life back.”

Earlier this month the US Government announced it was going to sue BP and other companies involved in the disaster. The total amount for which the company will end up being liable is unknown, but some estimates suggest it could run into hundreds of billions of pounds.

“I’ve seen the devastation that this oil spill caused throughout the region, to individuals and to families, to communities and to businesses, to coastlines, to wetlands, as well as to wildlife,” said the US Attorney General, Eric Holder. “We will not hesitate to take whatever steps are necessary to hold accountable those responsible for this spill.”[…]

Friends of the Earth Scotland pointed out that it was the poor communities that bore the brunt in the US. “It was only when oil started to reach Florida, rather than Louisiana, that the US took it seriously,” said the group’s head of campaigns, Juliet Swann.

BP, meanwhile, is busy trying to repair its damaged reputation. It has said sorry, taken responsibility for the clean-up and ploughed untold public relations resources into “making it right”. The question is, could it happen again? 

 Could the Gulf Oil Spill happen again? A new report on the perils of offshore drilling reminds Earth Justice of the old saying that “today’s generals are always preparing to fight yesterday’s wars.” Earth Justice is less than sanguine about a new report on what would happen in an oil spill in the Arctic:

The report, by Pew Environment Group, warns that the lessons learned in fighting the massive Gulf of Mexico oil spill are not good guidelines to make drilling in Arctic waters safe. Says Pew: “the risks, difficulties and unknowns of oil exploration and development are far greater in the Arctic than in any other U.S. ocean area.”

In other words, [says EarthJustice], let’s not be fooled by oil industry assurances that the Gulf spill has prepared us to face down a spill in the Arctic. It’s a different battleground. What barely worked in the warm waters of the Gulf will surely fail in a sea of ice. Here’s how Pew puts it:

Industry and government plans for oil and gas exploration and development in the Arctic Ocean have been rushed, relying on a cursory environmental analysis of the potential impacts of a catastrophic oil spill. They also rely on inadequate and unproven oil spill response plans and techniques.

These plans have been pushed forward despite the lack of information on Arctic marine ecosystems and the effects of climate change and a lack of understanding of the impacts that oil and gas drilling would have on the Arctic Ocean’s unique species.

Pew Recommends:

• Federal resource management agencies must complete a comprehensive science plan, including research and data collection on the Arctic marine environment, before oil and gas exploration and development proceed.
• Oil spill risk assessments and spill prevention technologies must reflect Arctic conditions.
• Spill response must be tailored to Arctic conditions, and response planning standards must be strengthened.
• Review and oversight of oil and gas drilling must be enhanced.

EarthJustice also reports that some strategies used in the Gulf were largely innefectual. They write:

Miles of sand berms built to protect the coastline during the
Gulf oil spill that cost millions of dollars were a huge waste of money, according to a presidential oil spill commission. During the spill, Louisiana governor Bobby Jindal strongly insisted on having the berms, despite scientists and federal agencies raising concerns over the berms’ potential effectiveness. Yet, as the Associated Press quoted coastal scientist Rob Young as saying, the berm effort has so far done little more than draw “a pencil line of sand.”

“Ouch,” concludes EarthJustice.

Much closer to home in our parade of less-than-good news stores comes a December 25 LA Times article by Michael Mishak weighing the positive and negative aspects of Governor Schwarzenegger’s performance as governor.

Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger’s efforts to give a boost to corporate California are colliding with his image as an environmental crusader in his final days in office.

Administration officials say their moves are needed to protect jobs in a fragile economy. But environmentalists are dismayed by what they see as a feverish push to limit restrictions on toxic chemicals in retail goods, ease key air pollution rules, and permit the use of a known carcinogen to treat soil in strawberry fields.

[Listeners will recall that we covered the strawberry story with members of Pesticide Watch and the Butte Environmental Council just three weeks ago. We learned that the use of Methyl Iodide on strawberries is environmentally unsafe and the approval is clearly a business decision that will endanger human health.]

The administration’s maneuvering highlights a tension present at the outset of Schwarzenegger’s tenure: the environmental activist versus the business executive.

Schwarzenegger spokesman Aaron McLear said the governor’s environmental record is indisputable, citing big strides he has made in curbing greenhouse gas emissions under the landmark global warming law, AB 32, signed by Schwarzenegger in 2006.

McLear said, “This governor has implemented the most historic aggressive environmental regulations in the country and sometimes the world. It’s just not credible to argue otherwise.”

But activists say they are sorely disappointed by some of the governor’s recent moves.

Bill Allayaud, director of government affairs for Environmental Working Group, an advocacy organization focused on toxic chemicals says, “I think they’d rather take heat from some environmental groups and some scientists than they would from Dow, DuPont and Exxon Mobil.”

Last-minute actions on the state Green Chemistry Initiative were a particular letdown to environmental activists.

The program is meant to remove dangerous chemicals from retail products. But a recent loosening of the regulations by the administration prompted 33 environmental, health and community groups to warn that they had become “so ineffective and burdensome that they should be jettisoned altogether.” The groups accused the administration of putting the industry-friendly changes on a fast track before the inauguration of Jerry Brown, who may not be as business-friendly.

The changes so disturbed the author of the legislation creating the program, Assemblyman Mike Feuer (D- Los Angeles), that he no longer supports the regulations.

The Sacramento News and Review pretty much agrees with the assessment of Swarzenegger’s performance as an environmental governor as mixed and often inconsistent:

[…]California’s Jolly Green Governor is an ardent champion of ratcheting down greenhouse gases, known worldwide for his championing of Assembly Bill 32 to lower California’s emissions to 1990 levels by 2020. But, in 2006, he was the chief cheerleader for a $20 billion bond measure to ease congestion on state roads and highways, making it easier for commuters to drive. And he has gutted funding for public transit—a key way to get solo commuters out of their vehicles and, thereby, improve air quality.

Schwarzenegger signed 2004 legislation creating the Sierra Nevada Conservancy—at 25 million acres stretching from Kern County to the Oregon border, by far the state’s largest—and inked a deal with the Tejon Ranch in Southern California preserving roughly 90 percent of the 270,000 acre property. But Schwarzenegger routinely put the state park system on the budget chopping block and declined to reappoint his brother-in-law Bobby Shriver and Clint Eastwood to the State Park & Recreation Commission after their opposition to the GOP governor’s plan to allow a six-lane toll road to cut through San Onofre State Beach. Budget cuts, albeit necessary to close the state’s massive cash shortage, have also curtailed the state’s ability to enforce environmental laws. California’s Department of Fish and Game wardens cover a larger area per warden than those in any other state. Schwarzenegger opposed drilling off California’s coast, then backed an expansion of it, saying that royalties paid by oil companies would help reduce the 2009 state budget shortfall. After the BP debacle in the Gulf of Mexico, he returned to opposing an expansion of drilling.

Also in the mixed news category are reports coming out of the most recent global climate change conference in Cancun, Mexico. A year ago, the Copenhagen climate change conference disappointed just about everyone and fell well below expectations. Perhaps the publicists and politicians learned some lessons, for they were far less optimistic about the Cancun meeting and its possible outcomes, which, in our view, were quite small and certainly not enough to limit climate change. Nevertheless, most of the articles we reviewed were at least mildly positive. Here’s one from The Australian, published on December 27, an op-ed by Connie Hedgaard, European Commissioner for Climate Change, who says that Cancun puts climate change agreements “back on track”:

What’s in the[Cancun] package? [she asks rhetorically, and she answers,] Quite a bit. The key points of the agreement concluded in Cancun are based on the results we achieved in Copenhagen last year.

That includes the 2 centigrade target and the reduction pledges that countries took on in the run-up to Copenhagen. It includes the commitment of developed nations to provide finance for developing countries: $US30 billion in the short term (2010-12) and $US100bn annually by 2020. […] The package also includes agreement on the rules for transparency — how countries measure and report their emissions — which had proved to be a stumbling block in Copenhagen.

Besides tightened rules on transparency, the agreement contains detailed decisions for improved co-operation on technology between north and south, an agreement on climate adaptation in developing countries and a mechanism to reverse deforestation in the tropics.

 But, Commissioner Hegard also owns up to the obvious fact that:

Cancun did not solve everything. The reduction commitments are not enough to keep the temperature increase below 2 centigrade and there are other outstanding issues, such as the legal form of the agreement and how to provide the long-term finance.

But [, she continues,] Cancun proved the multilateral process can deliver results. Without an agreement the UN process would have been in imminent danger. Politicians and the public might well have lost faith in the process and discarded it, with nothing to put in its place.

Now we have a deal. But there is still much work ahead of us, both internationally, where we must still deal with the outstanding issues, and domestically, where we have to deliver on what has been decided. In Europe we are already working on it.

Like Copenhagen, the Cancun conference seems to be more of a future promise than a direct achievement, and Commissioner Hedgaard concludes her report in The Australian with a peroration that sounds to us a lot like corporate-speak. She says:

Next year we will present a road map for how we can create an intelligent, innovative low-carbon economy by 2050. We do this for the environment, but we also do it for the sake of competitiveness and energy security.

In a world with ever more people and fewer fossil energy resources, the winners will be the ones who are independent of oscillating oil prices and who can provide energy efficient and innovative solutions. […]


We could go on at length with the less-than-good news about environmental accomplishments in 2010. For example, Science Daily has reported new studies that show unexpectedly large hypoxic or “dead” zones in the Atlantic Ocean and, quite predictably, the Gulf of Mexico.
And the New Scientist has an appalling report that “A handful of Chinese and Indian chemicals companies seemingly have the world over a barrel – or rather a large number of barrels of a super-greenhouse gas called HFC-23, which is 14,800 times more potent than carbon dioxide.” These companies have been granted millions of carbon credits [for this stored gas, which they threatened to release into atmosphere if they didn’t get credits. They can then sell those same credits] to western companies that want to offset their obligations to cut emissions of other greenhouse gases, under a Kyoto scheme known as the Clean Development Mechanism (CDM).



The Mostly Better News

Late last year, we interviewed Alexander Ochs, Director of the Climate and Energy Program of Worldwatch, as he was on his way to the Copenhagen climate talks. Ochs explained that many countries were resisting the kinds of dramatic changes necessary to have an impact on climate change. Feeling discouraged about the prospects for the conference, we asked Ochs if he was similarly downcast. To our surprise, his answer was no. On the contrary, he was feeling optimistic, because he said, the will is there among the people. We’ll circumvent the government, he insisted, because people want change.

One strong piece of that evidence came from California in 2010, where we the people (including local activist Jessica Allen soundly trounced Proposition 23, the effort to roll back California’s pioneering climate control actions. Here’s an op-ed from the Seattle Times, published on December 23, holding up California and its voters for praise. Guest columnist K.C. Golden, policy director for Climate Solutions, a Northwest nonprofit, writes:

Gaping budget deficits. Record foreclosures. High unemployment. Surely, this would be the perfect time to choose jobs over the environment.

That’s what two Texas oil companies figured when they put Proposition 23 on the California ballot in November. The measure would have suspended California’s Global Warming Solutions Act until unemployment fell below 5.5 percent. But the oil companies miscalculated. California voters rejected Prop. 23 overwhelmingly.

Do you think Californians, with 12.4 percent unemployment, were saying, “We want climate solutions, not jobs”? Of course not. They were saying something much more positive: “Climate solutions are jobs, and we’ll have both.”

Difficult economic conditions are a signal to accelerate this clean-energy economy, not to go back to the old-think that created our economically and environmentally devastating fossil-fuel dependence. With a sputtering economy and a deepening climate crisis, we can’t afford to freeze in the headlights of the broken, polarized, special-interest politics that pits jobs against the environment.

The West Coast clean-energy economy is a bright spot on a cloudy economic horizon. Renewable energy is a powerful job driver. Energy-efficiency programs are putting people to work in their communities, while keeping energy dollars circulating through their local economies. Cleaner cars and better transportation choices are reducing our crippling dependence on oil.

California’s business community — from Silicon Valley to small-town chambers of commerce — united against Prop. 23 to protect the clean-energy job engine against the oil interests who see reduced fossil-fuel dependence as a threat to their profits. Oil companies tried to sing the tired old “jobs vs. environment” song, but they were way off key.[…]

An economic crunch is a time to advance together, not retreat into opposing camps whose lobbyists battle each other to a standstill to accomplish nothing — as they did when Congress failed to pass a national climate and energy policy this year. Let’s be clear: If we keep burning fossil fuels at our current rate, and ship what we don’t use to Asia, we’re toast. Our economy will decline and we’ll leave our kids a future of catastrophic climate disruption. (It’s considered risky for climate advocates to use scary words like “catastrophic.” But it’s riskier and scarier to avoid these words when they are true.)

This is not an “evironmental” thing; it’s not a political thing; it’s not cable-news partisan football. It’s a science thing, a reality thing, a moral crossroads — an epic human tragedy that we’re well on our way to creating. There’s no good future — for business, people, or the planet — if we keep stoking the climate crisis with more fossil fuels.

[…]We have a long way to go, but we have begun to demonstrate that a new, sustainable prosperity is possible. We know it’s necessary. A tough economy means it’s time to rise to that challenge, not duck it.

 But we in the Northstate don’t have to look to Seattle for inspiration. There’s plenty right here in town. We were delighted to see Chris LaPrado’s article in this week’s Chico News and Review describing an award granted to Sierra Nevada brewery and its CEO Ken Grossman:

In honor of the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency’s 40th anniversary, the agency held an awards ceremony in Los Angeles on Dec. 2 recognizing a dozen environmental leaders in the EPA’s Pacific Southwest region. Of the 12 people and businesses presented with the prestigious awards, nine were from California, including outgoing Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger, who won the Climate Change Champion award for his groundbreaking efforts to reduce greenhouse gases and promote solar power, including signing the 2006 Global Warming Solutions Act (AB 32).

 Also weighing in for California was Chico’s own Sierra Nevada Brewing Co., which was named Green Business of the Year for its “environmental leadership in the brewing industry,” as an EPA press release put it. Among other stellar green feats aiming for zero waste, the brewery keeps 99.5 percent of its solid waste out of the landfill through such means as recycling and composting, and 85 percent of Sierra Nevada’s electricity comes from renewable power (you’ve seen SNB’s many solar panels, no doubt). The brewery also was recently recognized by the Platinum Sacramento Area Sustainable Business program for its green transportation policies.

Grossman took [Christine Laprado] on a tour of his business’ newest green innovations, [and said modestly] “It’s nice to be acknowledged [by the EPA]. We appreciate it. We’ve always had the feeling that we try to do the right thing.”

We are constantly amazed and impressed by the Butte Environmental Council’s many, positive actions on behalf of the environment and our northstate ecosystem. The most recent issue of BEC’s Environmental News reports on a range of activities:

  • a project at Creekside 6 Academy in Paradise, with Carol Perkins helping kids understand the endangered ecology if Little Dry Creek.
  • the ongoing BEC lawsuit concerning drought watewr usage in Butte County.
  • advocacy after the General Plan update, with a focus on a legal challenge based on water and zoning ordinances.
  • and for the historically minded, a review of BEC’s 35 years of environmental protection projects.

Check them out at

Another group doing great work locally is Aqualliance, which continues to defend the northstate and California water supply while advocating for comprehensive, systematic, ecological sound, area wide water and natural resources plan. Check out therir website:

Jumping to national and global good news, we found encouraging words on the Environmental News Network’s site including stories about:

  • A BBC celebration of the Wright Brothers’ first flight that emphasized the incredible flying abilities of birds, way advanced over human flight.
  • Successful ooperative international efforts to control the flow of hazardous wastes across borders.
  • Discovery of a new nesting ground in Belize for the Harpy Eagle, which is now a bit less endangered than thought.
  • A new Walgreen’s in Oak Park, Illinois based on geothermal powers.

The Environmental News Network is at

And we were heartened to read about the international Goldman Awards, that give prizes and support for grassroots community environmental efforts. The 2010 awards included:

  • A lawsuit in Swaziland, Africa, to challenge forced evictions and violence perpetrated against poverty-stricken communities living on the edges of conservation areas.
  • A Cambodian project to to mitigate human/elephant conflict by empowering local communities to cooperatively participate in endangered Asian elephant conservation.
  • A Polish effort to preserve one of Europe’s last true wilderness areas from a highway project that would have destroyed the region’s sensitive ecosystems.
  • A Cuban program to promote sustainable agriculture by working with farmers to increase crop diversity and develop low-input agricultural systems that greatly reduce the need for pesticide and fertilizer.
  • And the efforts of Lynn Henning, a Michigan farmer, to challenge the pollution practices of concentrated animal feeding operations , prompting state regulators to issue hundreds of citations for water quality violations.

Read more of this good news at

The Prospects for 2011

 We’ll wrap up this show by reading from an article that appeared in the International Herald Tribune on December 27, where Kate Galbraith speculates on what is likely to happen on the global front in the coming year. She writes that the year 2010:

[…] began with gloom, after the collapse of the Copenhagen climate meetings in December 2009. The mood darkened further as it became clear that cap-and-trade legislation to combat greenhouse gas emissions would not pass the U.S. Congress.

[Editorially, we have to add that we are not personally convinced that cap-and-trade carbon trading is a solution to emissions problems.] 

A sliver of hope came from a modest agreement at climate meetings in Cancún, Mexico, earlier this month, on a more solid multinational commitment to finding ways to cut emissions. Another development, bringing perhaps more relief than hope, was the rejection by California voters of an effort, backed by oil companies, to suspend the state’s landmark law to combat global warming.  

The year 2011 may not bring too much improvement, from environmentalists’ perspective. Budget deficits and a still-sluggish economy in the United States and elsewhere may complicate investments in clean-energy technologies. And international negotiators have plenty of tough work ahead, the progress at Cancún notwithstanding.

“I’m pessimistic about this international process,” said Jürgen Weiss, a principal at Brattle Group, a consulting firm based in Massachusetts. The Cancún agreement was not legally binding, so while vows to limit the planet’s warming to a modest amount are all very well, Mr. Weiss said, it would be “utterly shocking if these things remain more than just words.”

Next year, some big milestones are set to be reached. The United States is to begin regulating greenhouse gas emissions for the first time in January. The rules at first will be mild and will apply only to new or expanding big plants. But last week, the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency announced a timetable for issuing rules to control greenhouse gas emissions from power plants and refineries — two major sources of the heat-trapping gases — in 2012. (The E.P.A. also declared last week that it would take over the issuing of greenhouse gas permits for big plants in the one state, Texas, that has made clear its unwillingness to carry out the regulations.)

Among other 2011 developments, international climate talks are scheduled to take place in South Africa late in the year. They are intended to build on the Cancún accords, which spanned a range of good intentions, including assistance from wealthy countries to poorer ones.

Indeed, two of the major players in Cancún — China and the United States — will have an opportunity for further discussion on climate, as the Chinese president, Hu Jintao, is scheduled to visit the United States next month.  

Much of the focus for 2011, however, is likely to remain on the race to develop a clean-energy economy. The European Union is to begin work on a new “energy savings directive” to help with financing and other issues related to energy efficiency. A proposal from the European Commission is likely to be released in the third quarter of 2011, with additional negotiations and discussions to follow, according to Bendt Bendtsen, a Danish member of the European Parliament and a draftsman of the Parliament’s position on energy efficiency.

China, too, is likely to focus on its burgeoning wind and solar sectors.

“With or without international agreements, Asian countries are taking action to promote renewable energy,” Yotam Ariel, an independent solar consultant based in Shanghai, said in an e-mail.

 However, the promotion of renewable energy by China in particular is likely to be a big issue next year in Washington, as U.S. officials continue to scrutinize Chinese clean-energy exports and potentially complain to the World Trade Organization about trade practices.

Earlier this month, the administration of President Barack Obama brought a case to the trade group alleging that the Chinese government had illegally subsidized production of wind-turbine equipment; that case was strongly backed by the United Steelworkers, a U.S. labor union. The Chinese have defended their policies.

The United States is still investigating other aspects of Chinese green technology practices, so further action by Washington could be coming.  

How strongly the United States moves forward next year to support clean energy on the home front remains to be seen. The White House says it is committed to doing more. The press secretary, Robert Gibbs, said in a Twitter question and answer session last week, “We have to focus on dealing with our lack of energy independence — continue to push for renewable standards and more.” […]

However, given states’ budget concerns, renewable energy development could experience some resistance, according to Mr. Weiss of Brattle Group. He said it would be interesting “to see whether the United States — primarily the states — can maintain momentum on the renewables side.”

“My observation is that there is increasing resistance to the payments that are necessary to build the renewable projects” to meet the clean-energy requirements now in place in many of the states, he added.

Clean energy aside, efforts to combat climate change legislatively in the United States next year are likely to stall. The new Congress, which will include many more conservatives, will almost certainly be disinclined to take action on global warming and may even hold hearings to question the Environmental Protection Agency and international climate science.

For the next two years, and perhaps longer, it will be “utterly impossible” to pass national cap-and-trade policies, Mr. Weiss said — although he noted that California, the country’s most populous state, would spend the next year readying for a cap-and-trade system of its own. It is scheduled to begin in 2012. (Northeastern states also have an emissions trading system in operation to counter greenhouse gases.)

Meanwhile, global greenhouse gas emissions continue to climb. As Justin Gillis reported last week in The New York Times, measurements at the Mauna Loa Observatory in Hawaii showed carbon dioxide levels at 390 parts per million — a number that has risen dramatically in recent decades and shows no sign of stopping.

Playlist for Ecotopia #116

1. Auld Lang Syne 2:36 Straight No Chaser Holiday Spirits (Bonus Track


2. Supernova 4:42 Liquid Blue Supernova

3. Black Moon (Album Version) 6:59 Emerson, Lake & Palmer Black Moon

4. Clear Blue Skies (LP Version) 3:07 Crosby, Still, Nash & Young

American Dream

5. Life Uncommon 4:57 Jewel Spirit

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

Peter, Paul and Mary

Ecotopia #115 The Darwinian Tourist

Posted by on 14 Dec 2010 | Tagged as: Uncategorized

December 14, 2010

Tonight our topic is evolution, and we’ll be talking with Professor Christopher Wills of the University of California San Diego, who has written a book called, The Darwinian Tourist.  He’s traveled the world looking at some of the extraordinary diversity in animal and plant life and figuring out how evolution can explain some of the strange and wonderful life forms on this planet.

The Theory of Evolution is credited to Charles Darwin, who wrote in 1859:  “Owing to this struggle for life, any variation, however slight and from whatever cause proceeding, if it be in any degree profitable to an individual of any species, in its infinitely complex relationship to other organic beings and to external nature, will tend to the preservation of that individual, and will generally be inherited by its offspring.”

 Often neglected in discussions of Evolution is a contemporary of Darwin’s, Alfred Russel Wallace, who some think figured out the theory before Darwin. Wallace was especially interested in the effect of the environment on evolution,  writing:  “This  progression, by minute steps, in various directions, but always checked and balanced by the necessary conditions, subject to which alone existence can be preserved, may, it is believed, be followed out so as to agree with all the phenomena presented by organized beings, their extinction and succession in past ages, and all the extraordinary modifications of form, instinct, and habits which they exhibit.”

 Our guest, Christopher Wills, helps us understand both Darwin and Wallace in his book.  We’ll also ask him about cultural influences on evolution—the idea that how we shape our environment will also shape how we evolve as people. This possibility was first broached by philosopher James Mark Baldwin, who argued in 1898 that: “Heredity provides for the modification of its own machinery,”  in other words, that culture, as well as genetic permutations,  is responsible for how we have evolved as human beings.

Listen to the Program

Our Discussion with Christopher Wills

 Christopher Wills is Professor of Biology at the University of California, San Diego, and author of an amazing new book called, The Darwinian Tourist (Oxford University Press, 2010), describing his travels around the world learning about how evolution has shaped the planet. It’s beautifully illustrated with his own photographs.  (For details, go to

  • In the introduction to the book, you explain that throughout your career you have been a lab scientist, but over the past two decades, you have been out in the laboratory of the world.  Please tell us about the evolution of your own interests as a scientist and writer.
  • In our experience, the concept of “evolution” is widely if vaguely acknowledged, often debated as if it were a spiritual belief, and frequently oversimplified as “monkey business.”  At the risk of asking you to oversimplify, could you tell us how your travels have illustrated some of the basic principles of evolution? [mutation, natural selection, chance—e.g.  Nahal Oren Canyon,  Lambeh Strait]
  • How has genetic research and the Genome project helped biologists refine their theory of evolution?  Would Darwin be surprised by those refinements (or did he possibly get it more or less “right” from the start)?
  • You write at length about the eating habits, digestive system, and the swimming skills of the Proboscis monkey.
    • How are such traits a result of mutation, selection, and chance?  That is, what went on in those animals’ cells, their DNA, to make them swimmers? to make them live on a boring diet of leaves when there is more appetizing stuff available?
    • You also note that the Proboscis monkey is painted into an evolutionary corner.  Is that a dead end? [Voltaire’s Candide cheerily finds evidence that the worst of situations somehow proves that “this is the best of all possible worlds.”  How does this differ from your assertion that the evolution of (some) monkeys’ digestion “has taken the most probable of a number of possible paths”? (70)]
    • You pose an interesting question about the human digestive system. If/when we have reduced our food supply by irrevocably damaging the planet, could we (re)evolve to be able to eat the kind of cellulose fibers consumed and digested by [some] monkeys? [Could we dine off the New York Times?]

In the first part of the program, we asked you to deepen our understanding of “natural” evolutionary processes.  In the next segment, we’d like to ask you to more fully factor in the human effect on the planet and on evolution and diversity.

  • You say that humans have “accelerated the process” of evolution and “triggered repeated ecological disasters.”  How do these compare in scope to natural events that are disastrous for some species? (117)
  • How did the domestication of animals change the world—for good and/or ill? [Why do our Border Collies, Zero, Gus, and Quinoa, like to herd sheep?]
  • If the Great Migration from Africa led to human diversity, how do “parallel cultures” preserve that diversity? [Why aren’t we Indo-Europeans the ultimate in evolution?]
  • Please discuss: “Life on Earth will survive no matter what we do. Our great challenge is to see whether we can preserve enough diversity on our planet to make the lives of our descendants worth living.” (151)
  • What do you think personally: “Will our grandchildren be able to look back and say proudly, ‘Yes, they swerved in time’?” (121)

What can our listeners to do help us swerve in a safer direction?

Postscript: Diversity and the Slow Foods Movement

We close out our show on Darwinian Tourism by reading from an article by Terra Brockman, a Slow Food advocate, that appeared just this week at the Zester Daily website.  Where Chris Wills talked with us mostly about animal diversity, Terra is writing about Slow Food’s October meeting in Italy which focused on preserving biodiversity in the foods we eat. She writes:

After five days of sparkling skies over Turin, Italy, at the end of October, there was “a perturbation in the weather,” as the Italians say. And so it was under a heavy gray sky spitting icy rain, that we arrived at the huge Saturday market in Asti, and there my eyes were captured by the sunny-colored peppers of Carmagnola.

I had learned of these particular peppers at the Terra Madre conference we had just attended in Turin because they are protected by one of the Slow Food organization’s biodiversity initiatives. Safeguarding biodiversity was one of the primary themes at Terra Madre 2010. 

This biennial meeting is one of the most implausible gatherings on the planet. Organized by Slow Food International, it brings together more than 6,000 farmers, cooks and local food advocates from around the world to promote solidarity and to celebrate and protect diversity — diversity of peoples, languages, traditions, foods and the plants and animals those foods come from.

Why protect the Carmangola pepper? Why protect any domesticated plant or animal? These are reasonable questions only because most of us are unaware of how crucial biodiversity is to the planet and to human existence. And few are aware of how much biodiversity has been lost in the past two or three generations.

[…L] oss of biodiversity means we are swimming in a dangerously shallow gene pool. And shallow gene pools have a hard time defending themselves against pests, diseases and climate change. Most scientists say that the Irish potato famine could have been avoided if farmers had been growing a wider variety of potatoes. Biodiversity, then, is a crucial insurance policy. When you have 15,000 varieties of apples, you have varieties adapted to many microclimates, apples resistant to fungal and bacterial diseases, apples able to withstand bitter cold and raging heat, damp soils, dry soils, clay soils, sandy soils and whatever curveballs nature or humankind might throw. To lose a species means losing a unique genetic combination of strengths forever. 

[…] In the words of Hamdallah Zedan, executive secretary of the United Nations Convention on Biological Diversity, “In a world of increasing globalization and environmental degradation, management of its most precious living resource, biological diversity, is one of the most important and critical challenges facing humankind today.”

And so I was only doing my duty as a concerned citizen of the world when I ordered the Carmagnola pepper in bagna càuda at the Ristorante Antico Castello built into the castle walls at the top of Moncalvo in the beautiful vineyard covered hills of Piedmont.

You can read Terra’s full article at the Zester Daily website,  

Playlist for Ecotopia #115: The Darwinian Tourist

1. Worldwide Connected        5:06        The Herbaliser        Something Wicked This Way Comes       

2. Seed        6:25        Afro Celt Sound System        Seed       

3. The Animals Went In Two By Two (UK Vocals and UK Tunes)        1:24        Wendy Green         Party Songs and Nursery Rhymes (UK Vocals and UK Tunes)       

4, Trophic Cascade        4:12        Ronn Fryer        Endangered Animals (Environmental Jenga)       

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

6. Life Uncommon        4:57        Jewel        Spirit       

7. On the Road to Find Out        5:08        Cat Stevens        Tea for the Tillerman       

8. Stay Human (All The Freaky People)        4:27        Michael Franti & Spearhead        Stay Human       

9. Nature’s Way        2:40        Spirit        Twelve Dreams Of Dr. Sardonicus


Ecotopia #114 Humanity on a Tightrope

Posted by on 08 Dec 2010 | Tagged as: Uncategorized

7 December 2010

Tonight our topic is Humanity on a Tightrope.  That’s the title of a new book by Paul Ehrlich of Stanford University.  We first read one of his many influential books, The Population Bomb, way back in 1968, and it has profoundly shaped our thinking about the population crisis.  We’ve had several guests on the program talking about population, and many people see it as the biggest single issue facing humankind—if we overpopulate the planet, there is not hope for sustainability.  Dr. Ehrlich agrees, but also offers a somewhat different perspective.  His theme is empathy—or the lack of it—and he argues that lack of empathy for other people is at the root of many sustainability  problems. If we have empathy for others, we won’t destroy the earth on which they (and we live).  Paul Ehrlich also talks about what he calls “Big Change,” or what others call a “quantum leap” or a “paradigm shift” to get humankind working together on these issues.  This is a topic we have taken up with a number of guests on the program, and we continue to puzzle over how this will happen.  Do we need a world government with a environmentalist as queen or king?  Can governments legislate change on the scale we need? Are there incentives we can offer?  Can we depend on the good will and intelligence of humankind?  Or will humanity be driven to the brink, or to use Paul Ehrlich’s metaphor, teeter near falling off the tightrope before taking action?

Listen to the Program

Our Questiions for Paul Ehrlich

Paul Ehrlich teaches at Stanford University, where he is Bing Professor of Population Studies and president of the Center for Conservation Biology.  Many listeners will be familiar with him through his 1968 book, The Population Bomb, coauthored with Anne Ehrlich, which was highly influential in alerting the world to the implications of the “population explosion.”  His new book is coauthored with psychologist Robert Ornstein.  It’s called Humanity on a Tightrope: Thoughts on Empathy, Family, and Big Changes for a Viable Future.   

–The driving metaphor for your book is “humanity on a tightrope.” We realize that humankind is teetering, but your metaphor also includes the watching audience and its response to the tightrope walker’s stumbles.  Please tell us about this metaphor and why you and Robert Ornstein chose it for the book.

–You quote President Obama that humankind has an “empathy deficit,” and you argue that family affiliation and the ability to empathize are part of our evolutionary (or coevolutionary) makeup:

…What evidence have you have collected to suggest that “empathy” might be “genetic”?  [We especially appreciated the point that babies imitate facial expressions without knowing what their own face is.]  What are these mysterious (and controversial) “mirror neurons?  What is “neural Darwinism”?

…And you talk about the fundamental and evolutionary/genetic nature of human families.  What kinds of “families”?  What do you mean when you say we are a small-group animal?  How small?  Why isn’t Beaver Cleaver’s family a model of what you are discussing?

–It is clear from your book that humans’ natural affinity for empathy has been smothered over time. Please tell us a little about how this has come about. [We’re especially interested in your discussion of the African diaspora, population growth, and the growth of “them-us” distinctions.] How did the “culture gap” become so great? Why can’t we be more empathetic to “the other”?

–How is decreasing the empathy deficit related to the potential global disasters that you list: climate change, pandemics, toxic chemicals, war, discrimination, exploitation, gang rule, torture, social inequality?

–We have explored the case you make for increasing empathy as a way to keep humanity balanced on the tightrope.  Now,  let’s talk about how this might happen.  You’re talking about change on a massive scale, but as we know, it took millions of years for humans to evolve to their present condition.  How can we speed up the (co)evolution of empathy?

–What kinds of changes would you like to see in education? [As former university professors of English, we heartily endorse your ideas for reorganizing higher education.  How could a culture of empathy be developed at the elementary and secondary levels as well?]

–You argue that religions could play a major role in developing empathy, but isn’t the Golden Rule already central to most religions and ethical systems?

–You give multiple examples of cooperative decision making and group planning.  Please explain how these might be models for change.

–You challenge some of the concepts of cultural relativism, in particular, the notion that one set of values is as good as another.  How do we determine whose values are “best”?  Who gets to decide?  [You briefly allude to cultural universals; do you think these provide a basis for making moral decisions concerning what’s “best”?]

–You argue that we may need some sort of world government to bring about Big Change, but you do not seem to think that the UN has done a particularly good job or is up to the task.  What sorts of world bodies to you envision? How would they be balanced by local or small-group decision making?

–You suggest that people can take personal and political action to bring about change.  Could you give us some examples?

–What is the Millennium Assessment of Human Behavior and how does it represent a model for leading Big Change?

–In the end, do you have positive expectations for humanity’s tightrope walk?

 Playlist for Ecotopia #114: Humanity on a Tightrope

1. Imagine        3:08        John Lennon        Imagine (Remastered)        Rock
2. All Is Full Of Love        4:06        Björk        Livebox Sampler
3. Lean On Me        4:24        Al Jarreau        Ain’t No Sunshine
4. Gracias A La Vida (Here’s To Life)        3:34        Joan Baez        The Best Of Joan Baez
5. Weave Me the Sunshine        4:28        Peter, Paul And Mary        The Very Best of Peter, Paul and Mary
6. Life Uncommon        4:57        Jewel        Spirit
7. On the Road to Find Out        5:08        Cat Stevens        Tea for the Tillerman

Ecotopia #113 International News

Posted by on 01 Dec 2010 | Tagged as: Uncategorized


Tonight we’ll be reviewing ecological news—local, national, and international.We’ll start our environmental news update with three stories we’ve been following on Ecotopia.

Methyl Iodide.  Two weeks ago we talked with Maggi Barry of BEC about the misuse of pesticides in our region and Dana Perls of Pesticide Watch, about the dangers of methyl iodide for use on strawberries.

 “Today[November 30], a diverse coalition of farm worker, children’s health, farm, and environmental groups released their priorities for the incoming Brown administration. Healthy Children & Green Jobs: A Platform for Pesticide Reform lays out scientifically-grounded, public health-protective priorities for protecting children’s health and supporting healthy, safe and climate-friendly agriculture and pest management in California” A major concern of this group is that in his last days of office, Arnold Schwarzenegger may approve methyl iodide.

 A press release today from Californians for Pesticide Reform details the risk: “’The science is in. Methyl iodide is used to create cancer cells in labs, it causes late term miscarriages and it’s a water contaminant,’ said Paul Towers, [who is the director of] the coalition group Pesticide Watch Education Fund. ‘Scientists have said repeatedly that there’s no safe way to use this chemical in the fields. Approving it as a pesticide would be the wrong thing to do.’

 “Advocates are calling specifically on DPR Director Mary-Ann Warmerdam to listen to the science and deny the registration of cancer-causing methyl iodide in the state. Over 50,000 Californians and dozens of scientists, including six Nobel Laureates in Chemistry, concluded that the chemical was too toxic for use in California. Experts cite many reasons for prohibiting the use of methyl iodide, including higher health care costs and lost work time for farm workers and people in neighboring communities, as well as the cost to clean up local water supplies that may be contaminated if methyl iodide is approved.

“If the outgoing Schwarzenegger administration decides to let corporate pressure trump the science and approves this dangerous pesticide in its last few weeks in office, advocates are calling on Governor Brown to reopen the decision immediately and ban methyl iodide in California.”

In addition to taking a stand on methyl iodide, the coalition of groups has outlined a series of recommendations for the incoming Brown Administration to reduce pesticide use in Healthy Children & Green Jobs: A Platform for Pesticide Reform.

 “Currently, 2.48 million pounds of pesticides are used in Butte County annually, largely on rice, almonds, walnuts, peaches and prunes. Some of the top pesticides used include ziram, maneb, thiobenbcarb and chlorpyrifos – suspected carcinogens, reproductive toxins and endocrine disruptors.

“The platform calls for Governor Brown to take leadership that will:

Make agricultural jobs greener.  . .  . .

Protect children’s health. . . . .

Address climate change through agriculture. . . . .

“Californians for Pesticide Reform is a statewide coalition of over 185 public interest groups dedicated to protecting human health and the environment from pesticide use. Today, the coalition is simultaneously releasing its policy brief for the Brown Administration, Healthy Children & Green Jobs: A Platform for Pesticide Reform, in eight cities across the state, including Sacramento, San Francisco, Fresno, Bakersfield, Santa Cruz, Oxnard, Chico and Redding.

Healthy Children & Green Jobs: A Platform for Pesticide Reform can be downloaded at”

Food Safety.  This morning [November 30]the Senate passed the Food Safety Modernization Bill by a vote of 73-25. Some of the provisions of this bill include:

    * FDA access to facility records in a food emergency;

    * More FDA inspections at all food facilities;

    * FDA authority to decrease the amount of time between inspections, and     mandate yearly inspections of high-risk companies;

    * FDA authority to force a recall of potentially tainted food.

The issue is one we addressed on last week’s Ecotopia—food safety. Last week we talked with Michael Halpern of the Union of Concerned Scientists about their new report that raises questions about how safe our food supply is and the political and commercial pressures put on agricultural inspectors that limits their effectiveness. Part of that discussion included information about a bill before the Senate, The Food Safety Modernization Bill. This is an enormously complicated and controversial bill.This week we received an email update from Food Democracy Now, urging citizens to contact their senators to support amendments to protect small farmers while holding large farmers to account. They note, “[w]hile this bill has been controversial, family farmers and small-scale producers have won vital protections by getting the Tester Amendment included in the Manager’s Amendment. Now Big Ag is trying to kill these provisions, which exempt farmers that have sales of less than $500,000 and sell within 275 miles of their farm, and others are hoping to kill the bill outright.” Yesterday the Tester Amendment did pass [exempting small farms], and today the bill passed easily, after senators were besieged by phone calls yesterday, both pro and con. 

 The Center for Food Safety also weighed in on this issue: “The key to food safety is flexibility and transparency. A balance must be struck between protecting those most vulnerable to pathogens—children, persons with compromised systems, and the elderly—while safeguarding the livelihoods of small, medium-sized and family farmers and stringently regulating those food producers that pose the greatest food safety risks.”

 We have been somewhat overwhelmed by the battles over this bill waged on the internet, so we turned to food experts—Michael Pollan and Eric Schlosser—to provide the background on the legislative battle. On Sunday, Pollan, author of the Omnivore’s Dilemma and Food Rules: An Eater’s Manual, and Schlosser, author of Fast Food Nation and a producer of the documentary “Food Inc.” had an editorial in the New York Times, entitled “A Stale Food Fight.”

Because this bill still needs house approval, we want to explore the issues. Here’s what Pollan and Schlosser have to say:

“This legislation is by no means perfect. But it promises to achieve several important food safety objectives, greatly benefiting consumers without harming small farmers or local food producers.

“The bill would, for the first time, give the F.D.A., which oversees 80 percent of the nation’s food, the authority to test widely for dangerous pathogens and to recall contaminated food. The agency would finally have the resources and authority to prevent food safety problems, rather than respond only after people have become ill. The bill would also require more frequent inspections of large-scale, high-risk food-production plants.

“Last summer, when thousands of people were infected with salmonella from filthy, vermin-infested henhouses in Iowa, Americans were outraged to learn that the F.D.A. had never conducted a food safety inspection at these huge operations that produce billions of eggs a year. The new rules might have kept those people — mainly small children and the elderly — from getting sick.

“The law would also help to protect Americans from unsafe food produced overseas: for the first time, imported foods would be subject to the same standards as those made in the United States.

 “You would think that such reasonable measures to protect the health and safety of the American people would have long since sailed through Congress. But after being passed by the House of Representatives more than a year ago with strong bipartisan support, the legislation has been stuck in the Senate. One sticking point was the fear among small farmers and producers that the new regulations would be too costly — and the counter-fear among consumer groups that allowing any exemptions for small-scale agriculture might threaten public health.

“Those legitimate concerns have been addressed in an amendment, added by Senator Jon Tester of Montana, that recently was endorsed by a coalition of sustainable agriculture and consumer groups. But now that common sense has prevailed, the bill is under fierce attack from critics — egged on by Glenn Beck and various Tea Partyers, including some in the local food movement — who are playing fast and loose with the facts.

“Senator Tom Coburn, Republican of Oklahoma, is the bill’s most influential opponent by far. On the floor of the Senate the week before last, he claimed that only 10 or 20 Americans a year die from a food-borne illness, that the government doesn’t need mandatory recall power because “not once in our history have we had to force anyone to do a recall,” and that the annual cost of the new food safety requirements — about $300 million — is prohibitively expensive.

 “Senator Coburn is wrong on every point. According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, some 5,000 Americans annually die from a food-borne illness. Last year, at the height of a nationwide salmonella outbreak that sickened thousands, spread via tainted peanut butter, the Westco Fruit and Nuts company refused for weeks to recall potentially contaminated products, despite requests from the F.D.A.

“And as for spending that extra $300 million every year, a recent study by Georgetown University found that the annual cost of food-borne illness in the United States is about $152 billion. In Senator Coburn’s home state, it’s about $1.8 billion. Compared with those amounts, this bill is a real bargain.

“In the last week, agricultural trade groups, from the Produce Marketing Association to the United Egg Producers, have come out against the bill, ostensibly on the grounds that the small farms now partially exempted would pose a food safety threat. (Note that these small farms will continue to be regulated under state and local laws.) It is hard to escape the conclusion that these industry groups never much liked the new rules in the first place. They just didn’t dare come out against them publicly, not when 80 percent of Americans support strengthening the F.D.A.’s authority to regulate food.

“By one estimate, the kinds of farms that the bill would exempt represent less than 1 percent of the food marketplace. Does the food industry really want to sabotage an effort to ensure the safety of 99 percent of that marketplace because it is so deeply concerned about under-regulation of 1 percent? The largest outbreaks are routinely caused by the largest processors, not by small producers selling their goods at farmers’ markets.

“Theodore Roosevelt ran up against the same sort of resistance when he fought for the Pure Food and Drug Act of 1906. “Unfortunately,” he said, “the misdeeds of those who are responsible for the abuses we design to cure will bring discredit and damage not only upon them, but upon the innocent stock growers, the ranchmen and farmers of this country.” That is one reason the federal government decided to guarantee food safety during the last century — and why it must continue to do so in this one.”

We’ll stay tuned to this bill to see how it fares in the House.

 Monsanto’s Genetically Modified Beets.  Another project of the Center for Food Safety is an issue we’ve been following for over a year is the case of the USDA allowing Monsanto to plant genetically modified beets without getting an environmental impact statement. In October of 2010 we interviewed Frank Morton of Wild Garden Seed in Willamette Valley in Oregon. He was involved in what has come to be called in various media sources a “David versus Goliath” legal battle. When we first talked to him, Frank Morton had, along with a number of other plaintiffs, sued the USDA and its Animal and Plant Health Inspection Service (APHIS), because they didn’t file an environmental impact statement (EIS) prior to deregulation of Monsanto’s Roundup Ready sugar beet plant, as they were required to do. Those suing the USDA and APHIS were the Center for Food Safety, Organic Seed Alliance, Sierra Club, and High Mowing Organic Seeds.

On September 21, 2009, Judge Jeffrey S. White, of the United States District Court for the Northern District of California, ruled in favor of the plaintiffs—requiring that APHIS prepare an environmental impact statement. But while the organic seed/environmental groups won this round, the next round to play out was the remedy phase of the trial, which was scheduled to begin in December of 2009 in order to decide what would happen to Monsanto’s Round-up Ready transgenic crop.

Frank Morton explained in our interview with him a year ago last October that his livelihood depends on his ability to produce non-transgenic crops. When Monsanto began planting GE sugar beet seeds in the Willamette Valley, farms producing organic were at risk of cross-pollination, thus contaminating their seed. In Frank Morton’s case, his red chard and table beets were threatened. Morton said, “My market doesn’t have any tolerance for this.” Morton sells his seed both nationally and internationally. He explained: “I have to test my seed before I sell it and if I ever get a positive for genetic engineering traits, then my seed crops are worthless.”

In March 2010 we talked with Paul Achitoff, an attorney with Earthjustice, the Sierra Club’s Legal Defense Fund. He was preparing for the remedy phase of the trial

According to the Earthjustice website: In August of this year Judge White’s ruling made the planting of these beets illegal. The court reversed USDA’s approval because of the environmental and social-economic damage, which involve not only contamination of organic crops, but also “promoting the growth of ‘superweeds’ that are resistant to Roundup, and therefore are very difficult to eradicate unless highly toxic chemicals are used.”

Despite Judge White’s ruling, “on September 1, 2010, the U.S. Department of Agriculture’s Animal and Plant Health Inspection Service (APHIS) announced that it was in the process of issuing permits to authorize the planting of genetically engineered (GE) sugar beet seedlings this fall, without performing any review of the crops’ environmental impacts. . . . The unprecedented permitting process for a commercially-grown genetically engineered crop was initiated without public notice and comment or any environmental review. Last week, the agency met with companies involved and invested in promoting the gene-altered crop.

. . “The Executive Director of the Center for Food Safety, Andrew Kimbrell, said that “USDA has become a rogue agency in its regulation of biotech crops. Despite numerous court opinions, congressional mandates and federal investigations, it continues to act illegally.  The agency and Secretary Vilsack seem to see their mission as defending Monsanto’s bottom line rather than protecting farmers and consumers,”

Earthjustice attorney Paul Achitoff, whom we interviewed in March said, “USDA’s persistent refusal to comply with environmental laws in the face of one court decision after another is remarkable. This is yet another instance of USDA serving Monsanto’s interests at the expense of the public interest, without regard to the rule of law.”

The Center for Food Safety now has an online comment link to allow citizens to respond to the USDA’s action. Comments are being taken until December 6

 The Center says that the “USDA, under the influence of the biotech industry, must not be allowed to circumvent environmental law and the opinion of the U.S. courts, or ignore farmer choice and public opinion. Tell USDA its illegal proposal must not be approved!

“USDA has a comment period open only through December 6, 2010, so please send your comment today!” The link to that site is included on our webpage.

Or, you can respond to this call for action by going to the Center for Food Safety’s website: You’ll find the link to the comment line on that page, along with other action items.



Here are some international ecological events:

Climate Change. The annual United Nations climate change conference began yesterday[November 29] in Cancun with delegates from 191 governments negotiating long-term climate change cooperation.

The UN body that manages the UN treaty responding to climate change is the UN Framework Convention on Climate Change or the UNFCCC. The secretariat of UNFCCC states that: “The world has this year been confronted with a series of disasters that have illustrated the vulnerability of all humanity to extreme climate events. These include the devastating floods in Pakistan and in Niger, the wildfires in Russia, and the mudslides in China. . . . It is not possible to say with utmost scientific certainty that each of these are a direct climate change impact. But if they are anything to go by, then they give us a taste of the magnitude of what could come – and of what could come more frequently, and more intensely.”

According to the Environmental News Service, the talks in Cancun are taking two directions to talking about climate change: – ”the UN Framework Convention on Climate Change and the Kyoto Protocol to that convention, which limits 36 signatory industrialized nations to an average of 5.2 percent reduction below 1990 levels in the emission of six greenhouse gases.

”The original deadline for completing negotiations on both these tracks was to have been last year’s UN climate change conference in Copenhagen, but many issues remained unresolved – most stemming from differences between industrialized and developing countries on emissions limits and funding. As a result, the two working groups – one for each track – were given another year to finish their work and report to delegates at the Cancun conference.

Mother Nature Network represents the pessimistic response to this meeting:  “As climate negotiators from 194 countries converge on Cancun, Mexico, today, the mood is much more subdued than it was a year ago in Copenhagen. That U.N. climate summit kicked off with frothy fanfare and optimism, driven by the belief it would be a turning point in the war on global warming. But after the talks fell apart last December — producing only the watered-down Copenhagen Accord, and leaving the entire U.N. climate-negotiating process in question — world leaders are entering the 2010 talks more cautiously, avoiding the kind of sweeping, hopeful language that raised expectations in Copenhagen. Unlike that summit, most diplomats now admit they’re unlikely to reach a substantial emissions-reduction treaty in Cancun, and are instead focusing on smaller, longer-term agreements that may one day be built into a broader treaty. Also unlike Copenhagen, few heads of state are expected to attend the Cancun summit, signaling their pessimism that major deals will be reached.

According to Mother Nature Nework, “aside from merely doubting this year’s summit, some observers are doubting the entire idea of U.N. climate talks: as Damian Carrington writes in the Guardian today, “The whole multilateral U.N. process is on trial here.” This is partly due to lingering disappointment from Copenhagen, but there are also fears that even existing, small-scale efforts to fight climate change may fail. For example, a plan to save forests in Indonesia is widely seen as one of the few global successes since Copenhagen — capable of protecting animal biodiversity as well as trees, which can absorb extra carbon dioxide from the air — but as the New York Times reports today, even that program is now in doubt.

A Greenpeace report last week accused Indonesia of planning widespread land clearing, even though Norway recently agreed to give the country $1 billion in exchange for banning deforestation. Indonesia denies the claims, but they nonetheless highlight just how murky the process of global climate deals can be, and how daunting the task is for diplomats in Cancun. Still, U.N. climate chief Christina Figueres rejects the idea that a deal is out of reach. “At this point, everything I see tells me that there is a deal to be done,” she says. “Cancun will be a success, if parties compromise.” The Cancun climate talks will continue through Dec. 10.

According to a report of November 24, 2010 by Bob Petz in Ecology Global Network,

“The main greenhouse gases have reached their highest levels recorded since pre-industrial times, according to the World Meteorological Organization’s 2009 Greenhouse Gas Bulletin (pdf). The report also highlights concerns that global warming may lead to even greater emissions of methane from Arctic areas.

According to the Bulletin, total radiative forcing of all long-lived greenhouse gases increased by 27.5% from 1990 to 2009 and by 1.0% from 2008 to 2009, reflecting the rising atmospheric burdens of carbon dioxide, methane and nitrous oxide.

The aricle quotes WMO Secretary-General Mr Michel Jarraud:

“Greenhouse gas concentrations have reached record levels despite the economic slowdown. They would have been even higher without the international action taken to reduce them,” he said. “In addition, potential methane release from northern permafrost, and wetlands, under future climate change is of great concern and is becoming a focus of intensive research and observations.”

Carbon dioxide is the single most important anthropogenic [human-created] greenhouse gas in the atmosphere and contributes 63.5% to the overall global radiative forcing by long-lived greenhouse gases. Global radiative forcing is the balance between radiation coming into the atmosphere and radiation going out. Positive radiative forcing tends to warm the surface of the Earth and negative forcing tends to cool it.

For about 10,000 years before the start of the industrial era in the mid-18th century, atmospheric carbon dioxide remained almost constant at around 280 ppm (ppm=number of molecules of the gas per million molecules of dry air).  Since 1750, it has increased by 38%, primarily because of emissions from combustion of fossil fuels, deforestation and changes in land-use. During the past 10 years, it has increased by an average annual 1.88%, according to WMO.

Methane (CH4) contributes 18.1% to the overall global radiative forcing and is the second most important greenhouse gas after carbon dioxide.

Before the start of the industrial era, atmospheric methane was about 700 parts per billion. Since 1750, it has increased 158%, mostly because of increasing emissions from human activities such as cattle-rearing, rice planting, fossil fuel exploitation and landfills. Human activities now account for 60% of methane emissions, with the remaining 40% being from natural sources such as wetlands.

After a period of temporary stabilization from 1999 to 2006, atmospheric methane has risen again from 2007-2009. The Greenhouse Gas Bulletin reports that the likely causes were above average wetland methane emissions due to exceptionally warm temperatures at high northern latitudes in 2007 and heavy precipitation in tropical wetlands in 2007 and 2008. However, it cautions that the reasons for the recent increases are not yet fully understood.

Nitrous oxide (N2O) contributes 6.24% to the overall global radiative forcing. It is emitted into the atmosphere from natural and anthropogenic sources, including the oceans, biomass burning, fertilizer use and various industrial processes. Globally averaged nitrous oxide in 2009 was 19% higher, at 322.5 parts per billion than the pre-industrial era

The combined radiative forcing by halocarbons is 12%, nearly double that of nitrous oxide. Some halocarbons such as chlorofluorocarbons (CFCs), previously used as refrigerants, as propellants in spray cans and as solvents, are decreasing slowly as a result of international action to preserve the Earth’s protective ozone layer.

However, concentrations of other gases such as HCFCs and HFCs, which are used to substitute CFCs because they are less damaging to the ozone layer, are increasing rapidly. These two classes of compounds are very potent greenhouse gases and last much longer in the atmosphere than carbon dioxide.

Protecting Animal Species. The next few stories look at efforts to protect animal species around the planet.

Prserving Sharks. The Environmental News Service also reports (November 16) that Sharks, Mantas, and Turtles are to be protected in Raja Ampat, Indonesia.

Misool Eco Resort, [] and Shark Savers [] announced in mid-November that a Shark Sanctuary has been declared for the entire 17,760 square miles of Raja Ampat, Indonesia. . . . The Regent of Raja Ampat made this historic declaration, demonstrating leadership in marine conservation.

The Raja Ampat Shark Sanctuary provides full protection for sharks, manta rays, mobulas, dugongs, and turtles. Also prohibited are highly destructive practices including reef bombing and the aquarium fish trade. The Shark Sanctuary is the first of its kind in Indonesia, the largest island archipelago in the world.

Misool ResortThe Shark Sanctuary declaration is in direct response to a campaign mounted by Shark Savers, an international shark conservation organization, in partnership with Misool Eco Resort (MER). The campaign won the support of over 8,500 divers and conservationists, with hundreds of tourism and diving companies and NGOs from around the world.

“This new Shark Sanctuary owes its creation to thousands of ocean advocates who expressed the urgent need to protect sharks, mantas, and other marine life,” stated Michael Skoletsky, Executive Director of Shark Savers. “Divers experience the oceans from the inside and are increasingly taking responsibility for ocean and shark conservation. Underwater ecotourism is a vital tool to counter the rampant exploitation of the world’s remaining sharks and bio-rich marine ecosystems.”

The Raja Ampat Shark Sanctuary is expected to attract additional underwater eco-tourism, which will bring economic benefit to Raja Ampat’s people while offsetting the cost to enforce the new wildlife protections. Shark Savers will play an ongoing role to mobilize continued support of divers and conservationists to fund long-term enforcement in the Shark Sanctuary.

Katrina Manson, for Planet Ark, also reported yesterday that the “UN Urges Congo To Ban Oil Drilling In Gorilla Park”

Protecting Gorillas. The United Nations’ cultural arm UNESCO has appealed to Congolese President Joseph Kabila to guarantee there will be no oil exploration in the forest home of rare gorillas where two UK-listed firms hold drilling rights.

SOCO International and Dominion Petroleum were awarded a presidential decree to Block 5 of east Congo’s Albertine Graben in June. Plans for a seismic survey include exploding dynamite, despite the fact that the rebel-heavy area overlaps with the protected Virunga National Park.

In a letter seen by Reuters, UNESCO chief Irina Bokova warned Kabila of “extremely damaging repercussions” of oil activity and asked him to ensure no exploration took place in the park, which is also home to chimpanzees, lions, elephants, and migratory birds so rare it has special wetland status.

“I call on you to guarantee that no oil exploration or production will be committed at the heart of the Virunga national park,” she said in the letter dated August 6, which noted past commitments by Congo to protect the World Heritage site.

Local environmentalists argue that any exploration would be contrary  to Congo’s own laws.

“Congolese legislation does not authorize mineral and petrol production in national parks,” said a November 15 letter seen by Reuters to Environment Minister Jose Endundo from the Congolese Institute for the Conservation of Nature (ICCN).

Russia And China Pledge To Save The Tiger according to Alissa de Carbonnel in a Planet Ark article on November 25.

 Tiger Populations.

Russian Prime Minister Vladimir Putin and Chinese Premier Wen Jiabao on Tuesday agreed with other Asian nations to try to double the world’s wild tiger population by 2022 and save it from extinction.

Just 3,200 tigers now live in the wild, down from 100,000 a century ago, and those that remain face a losing battle with poachers who supply traders in India and China with tiger parts for traditional medicines and purported aphrodisiacs.

Putin, whose country is one of 13 that are home to the world’s last wild tigers, hosted a “tiger summit” with Wen and representatives from other Asian countries, the highest level meeting ever held to try to save a single species. “It is very important to save this wonderful, imperial creature — the tiger — for future generations,” Putin said, adding its situation worldwide was approaching “catastrophe.”

His spokesman Dmitry Peskov said a program to double the number of free-roaming tigers by 2022 was approved on Tuesday. Putin, who was given a tiger cub for his 56th birthday, has tried to court Russia’s growing environmental movement by throwing his weight behind efforts to save the tiger that roams across the vast forests of Russia’s Far East. An ex-KGB spy who sports a macho image, Putin referred to Indian freedom fighter Mahatma Gandhi’s quote: “The greatness of a nation and its moral progress can be judged by the way its animals are treated.”

Alissa de Carbonnel’s article continues:

“Initially, $350 million will be spent over the next five years, according to coordinators the World Bank and conservation organization WWF. But implementation will be key and without tough measures to halt poaching and deforestation by the 13 nations, tigers could cease to exist in the wild by that time.”

World Wildlife Foundation director Jim Leape says, “Here is a species that is literally on the brink of extinction. If we cannot succeed now, if current trends continue, by 2022 we will have only scattered remnants of the populations left.”

But conservation groups say governments and activists have failed to stop the poachers.

“The tiger population around the world has been dwindling away and the tiger conservation community has been putting in a lot of effort, but we’re not succeeding,” said John Robinson, chief conservation officer of the U.S.-based Wildlife Conservation Society.

. . . .

A marker of the summit’s success will be the launch of a consortium to fight wildlife smuggling, said John Sellar, chief enforcement officer for the Convention on the International Trade in Endangered Species (CITES).

. . . .

India is at the center of the trade with the most seizures of tiger parts, followed by China, where nearly every inch of the tiger fetches a high price, with pelts sold for as much as $35,000, according to black market database Havoscope.

John Stellar concludes:

“If we can’t do it for the tiger, then I think we have to ask, are we going to be able to do it for anything else?”

Coral Watch

Our final story is related to an interview we did a few weeks ago about the threat to tropical fish and their habitat. This comes from Ecology Global Network, posted November 17 by Bob Petz and claims that “80 Percent of Caribbean Corals Suffer Bleaching Due to Heat Stress”

Petz writes:

“Coral reefs suffered record losses as a consequence of high ocean temperatures in the tropical Atlantic and Caribbean in 2005 according to the most comprehensive documentation of basin-scale bleaching to date. Collaborators from 22 countries report that more than 80 percent of surveyed corals bleached and over 40 percent of the total surveyed died, making this the most severe bleaching event ever recorded in the basin. The study appears in PLoS ONE, an international, peer-reviewed, open-access, online publication.

In this story, C. Mark Eakin, coordinator of NOAA’s Coral Reef Watch Program is quoted as saying:

“Heat stress during the 2005 event exceeded any observed in the Caribbean in the prior 20 years, and regionally-averaged temperatures were the warmest in at least 150 years. This severe, widespread bleaching and mortality will undoubtedly have long-term consequences for reef ecosystems, and events like this are likely to become more common as the climate warms.”

This study also substantially raised the standards for documenting the effects of bleaching and for testing satellite and forecast products. Coral bleaching occurs when stress causes corals to expel their symbiotic algae, or zooxanthellae. If prolonged or particularly severe, it may result in coral death.

Through this survey, several species and localities reported bleaching for the first time, including the first known bleaching of any kind in Saba, the first documented mass bleaching at the Flower Garden Banks National Marine Sanctuary, and the first reported mass bleaching in Virgin Islands National Park of Acropora palmata, a species listed as threatened under the U.S. Endangered Species Act in 2006.

The Caribbean is suffering severe bleaching again this year, and in some locations, this bleaching event is worse than the event in 2005. Not only are temperatures causing further damage to reefs hit hard during the 2005 event, but new locations have also been impacted.

The decline and loss of coral reefs has significant social, cultural, economic and ecological impacts on people and communities throughout the world. As the “rainforests of the sea,” coral reefs provide economic services — jobs, food and tourism — estimated to be worth as much as $375 billion each year.

Satellite-based tools from NOAA’s Coral Reef Watch Program guided site selection for field observations conducted across the greater Caribbean region from June to October 2005. Field surveys of bleaching and mortality in this study surpass prior efforts in both detail and extent.

And that’s what we have in International News. For more environmental international news, check out: Planet Ark at, the Environmental News Network at, and Ecology Global Network at

 Playlist for Ecotopia #113: International News

1.  Karma Police          4:26     Radiohead                                                      

2. Mercy Mercy Me (The Ecology)     3:16     Marvin Gaye   What’s Going On       

3. Global Warming Blues        3:42     Lenny Solomon           Armando’s Pie                        

4. Danger (Global Warming) – Radio Mix      3:35     Brick Casey     Danger (Global Warming)                                         

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

6. Black Moon (Album Version)        6:59     Emerson, Lake & Palmer        Black Moon