The top green and Gristy stories of 2011
Sharing systems are all the rage
Can less consumption be more fun? Yes, when it’s social. The “collaborative consumption” trend didn’t start this year (the Zipcar car-sharing service launched way back in 2000), but the sharing movement has blossomed big-time. Airbnb, which lets you rent your home to travelers, made the biggest splash in 2011. People are also sharing their cars, kitchen utensils, gardens, taxis, DVDs, jobs — you name it. Think of it as the fine art of consensual mooching.
Climate change is messing up everything good
Yes, climate change is going to lead to ever more screwed-up weather, according to a new report from the U.N. Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change. But that’s the least of it. More horrifying is climate’s ruination of all that is good and holy: chocolate, peanut butter, bacon, oysters, wine, beer, bourbon, even coffee. Kill us now.
Tiny houses get big
There were probably more articles and blog posts in 2011 about tiny houses than there are actual tiny houses. But the hullabaloo highlights the fact that many people are craving simpler, more affordable, more sustainable lives. Even if most Americans aren’t ready to ditch the McMansion for 100 to 300 square feet, it’s just so much fun to look at those itsy-bitsy front porches and bizarro designs.
California doffs its cap (and trade)
The Koch brothers and their Big Oil buddies tried to kill it. Environmental-justice groups tried to kill it. But California’s cap-and-trade system — the first such state-level scheme in the nation — was officially adopted anyway. Once it goes into effect in 2013, we’ll find out if this sucker really works.
7 billion and one, 7 billion and two …
The global population surpassed 7 billion on Oct. 31, 2011 — or maybe it didn’t. It’s an arbitrary milestone either way, but a great reminder that with more of us crowding this finite planet, we have a long way to go on women’s rights, cutting consumption, fighting income inequality, figuring out how to feed everyone, grappling with growth, and simply talking about sex.
Urban farming goes legit
Think everyone who’s anyone is already raising chickens? Think again. Some poor souls live in cities and towns where animal husbandry (wifery? spousery?) and some types of gardening are overregulated or outright banned. Fortunately, that’s starting to change. San Francisco, Chicago, Baltimore, Oakland, and other municipalities changed their rules this year to encourage urban farming, while San Diego and other cities are looking to follow suit.
House Republicans wage war against the EPA
In 1995, a pack of rabid Republican freshmen led by Newt Gingrich held a series of votes targeting various EPA rules, but moderate Republicans refused to play along. These days, things are different. The 112th Congress’ pack of rabid Republican freshmen has organized near-total GOP unanimity on an unbroken string of anti-environmental votes — 170 so far — and rather than moderate Republicans bailing, “centrist” Dems are joining in. Worst of all is the REINS Act, passed by the House on Dec. 7, which would — and we use this term advisedly — completely f*ck the ability of the EPA to protect Americans’ air, water, and public health. For now, at least, the Senate and the White House are standing in the way.
Obama caves on smog protections
President Obama’s got a tough gig, hemmed in by a blindly oppositional Republican Party and a petty, paralyzed Congress. But he didn’t need congressional approval to push ahead with new smog standards that would have prevented up to 8,000 premature deaths and up to 40,000 asthma attacks a year. In fact, the White House had to go out of its way to quash the regs, which it did for naked (and mistaken) political reasons. Fans of clean air wept. And coughed.
It’s a fracklash
Hydraulic fracturing, aka fracking, is a way of getting
blood from a stone liquid fossil fuels from rock. Drills are jammed in horizontally and fluids are pumped in to increase pressure until the rock fractures and releases its goo. It’s become much more common in the U.S. in recent years, but in 2011 thousands of citizens got fed up and joined the fight against the water–polluting, tree-killing, earthquake–inducing technique. This insurgency included indie actors, Emmy-winning documentarian Josh Fox, public radio’s This American Life, and a danceable video explainer, as well as sober stuff like investigative reporting and on-the-ground protesting. The natural-gas industry isn’t letting up, but it is feeling the heat.
Solyndra faux-scandal puts clean energy on the defensive
Right-wingers have spent months trying to dig up some criminal or ethical wrongdoing surrounding the Energy Department’s $535 million loan guarantee to now-bankrupt solar company Solyndra, to no avail. But the mainstream media has played right along with conservatives’ talking points, whipping the incident into a faux-scandal that has unfairly cast renewable-energy investment and even just renewables in a bad light.
Fukushima disaster puts nuclear energy on the defensive
Photo: midorisyuNuclear power hasn’t had such a bad year since 1986, when Chernobyl charred a big chunk of the Ukraine. The messy meltdown at the Fukushima Daiichi nuclear power plant in March led Japan to cancel its plans for new reactors and start looking to cut its reliance on nuclear power. Germany, Switzerland, Spain, Taiwan, Mexico, and Belgium have started backing away from nuclear too; even France, the world’s most nuclear-reliant nation, has seen the issue flare up in its presidential campaign. Popular sentiment around the world appears to be trending against nukes — except in the U.S. and the U.K., that is. Anglos. Go figure.
Keystone XL pipeline stopped — for now
Photo: Ben PowlessThe pols and pundits said it was a done deal: The U.S. State Department would rubber-stamp plans for the Keystone XL pipeline, which would carry tar-sands crude 1,700 miles from Alberta, Canada, to refineries on the Gulf Coast of Texas. But thousands of activists, concerned citizens, and pissed-off people descended on D.C., amassed in the Midwest, and made a big enough stink that Obama decided to punt the final decision until after the 2012 election. Hey, these days, that counts as a win! [UPDATE: After the payroll-tax-holiday mayhem, we don’t know how this will play out, but, despite some pessimism from greens, there’s good reason for pipeline-haters to be optimistic.]
Photo: Jessica LehrmanThe Occupy movement shocked its own participants and the rest of the world with its reach, staying power, and success in changing the national and global conversation. Sure, there were little green add-ons: solar panels, sustainability committees, climate teach-ins, generator bikes. But ultimately the entire movement is about sustainability: tearing down a system that supports the rich, the powerful, and the polluters and building in its place a better, fairer, cleaner, kinder world for the rest of us. Vive la occupation!
David Roberts contributed to this list.