Asking and listening

I started talking on NYC subway cars, thanking people for using public transportation. It was kind of a lame move, but I wanted people to remember that public transport helps keep the city moving without putting a whole lot more cars on the street. It was definitely an act of desperation and has gotten pretty much no support. In rethinking this, I came to a better idea. I am now interviewing people about the environment. I don't ask loaded questions if I can help it, just open-ended things like what images do you associate with the environment, and what sort of connection do you see between your social and religious/spiritual upbringing and the environment. Stuff like that.

Kickstarting social change

The most pressing question for the environmental community today is how to motivate rapid and substantial social change in order to mitigate the effects of global warming (and, relatedly, peak oil). Despite the enormous danger, there is frustratingly little public outcry. As James Speth put it: Climate change is the biggest thing to happen here on earth in thousands of years, with incalculable environmental, social and economic costs. But there is no march on Washington; students are not in the streets; consumers are not rejecting destructive lifestyles; Congress is not passing far-reaching legislation; the president is not on television explaining the threat to the country; Exxon is not quaking in its boots; and entire segments of evening news pass without mention of the climate emergency. What will work to motivate the public? It seems everyone has an opinion about what the green movement is doing wrong, how it ought to tweak its message, and what can finally light a fire under the public's butt.

Switchgrass: The magic wand that transforms crappy biofuels policy into gold

This short piece in Foreign Policy magazine is revealing, I think, of the congealing conventional wisdom in D.C. policy circles. The basic thesis is this: Farm subsidies that now promote agricultural exports should simply be switched over to promote agricultural fuels -- i.e., ethanol. That way, Bush could get the WTO off his back about export subsidies, mollify the domestic agricultural lobby, and cure America's addiction to foreign oil. So easy! One small note of caution: So what's the catch? Corn farming is rough on the environment. Soil erosion due to wind and water is rampant. Fertilizer and pesticide runoffs produce algae blooms that result in "dead zones," including one in the Gulf of Mexico that is so polluted it cannot support aquatic life. Furthermore, building the ethanol processing plants will take 3-4 years, and gas stations would have to commit to providing ethanol. And, because ethanol uses only the starch in corn, not the oil, protein, or other components, converting corn into ethanol is attractive only if there is a market for the byproducts. Opinions differ, but some estimate that byproduct markets could saturate well short of 11 billion gallons of production. Luckily, there's a handy solution to these problems. What is it? Wait for it ... wait for it ... Switchgrass! Whee!

Recommended reading (really!)

Today's piece by Matthew Klingle and Joseph Taylor is a kind of minor miracle: interesting to mortals, despite being written by a couple of academic historians. Don't miss it. Of course, as true academics, they couldn't resist sending us a partial bibliography of poverty and environment-related books. It's great background for their story, but also for this series in general. I hereby share it with you -- complete with handy shopping links! Got any other suggestions? Feel free to add 'em.

Astroturf and the Endangered Species Act

Paul D. Thacker, who is doing kick-ass work these days, brings us another sordid tale of corporate influence, faux-grassroots ("astroturf") organizations, misleading PR, and political chicanery. I won't ruin too much of it for you, but it focuses on the Save Our Species Alliance, an astroturf organization helping Rep. Richard "Dick" Pombo (R-Calif.) sneak through his "reforms" of the Endangered Species Act. Turns out SOSA has roots in Project Protect, a "grassroots" outfit that sank $2.9 million in advertising to back Bush's Healthy Forests bill. Make no mistake: Corporate interests and the Congressfolk they've purchased have made this kind of manipulation of public sentiment into a science. The only effective response is to uncover the connections and expose the mechanisms. Paul's doing yeoman's work on that score.

Consumer Reports backtracks

Odograph will be happy to hear that Consumer Reports has admitted error: some hybrids save money after all. Including fuel savings and tax credits, Consumer Reports said, the Toyota Prius hybrid would save about $400 over five years and the Honda Civic hybrid would save about $300 compared with conventionally powered models. The magazine said it overestimated depreciation of the cars in arriving at its initial conclusion. I guess the millions thousands tens zero people who were staying away from hybrids for this reason can now put them back on the shopping list. (See original thread on CR report here.)

Elizabeth Chin responds

I am heartened, challenged, and stimulated by the interesting and engaged discussion that has emerged around my short piece, "I Will Simply Survive." It's always so interesting to see the ways in which I have managed (or not) to be clear in what I am trying to say. My aim was not to cast blame on anybody (except mostly myself, I think), but rather to encourage critical self-examination of what spurs each of us to attempt simplicity, simplifying, eco-whatever. Furthermore, my aim was to expand thinking to embrace those whose choices are constrained by poverty. Of course pro-environmental choices aren't bad: I have a worm box, I buy organic, and my child has virtually never worn a piece of clothing that came new from a store. Even so, despite whatever environmentally friendly and thrifty things I do -- consciously and with enthusiasm -- the bald truth is that I, like most people in the U.S., have a ridiculously outsized environmental footprint compared to the rest of the world's population. The worm box isn't bad at all, but there's no doubt it's a drop in the bucket.

A little Exxon bashing

Nothing like a little fire breathing to start your day. So I give you Carl Pope, who really seems not to like Exxon much: It is hard to imagine a more alarming scenario from the world's largest oil company -- we are entirely dependent on OPEC's being both willing and able to increase its production dramatically, even if we are very diligent about pursuing energy efficiency. If either one of those assumptions (cooperative, successful OPEC; energy-efficient consumers) fails to hold true, then we are cooked. So why is ExxonMobil running such soothing ads in the New York Times? Because if the world does hit a major oil shortage, then prices will soar, and ExxonMobil, which just reaped a record profit, will become even richer. What's really shameful is not that they feed us this toxic pabulum -- but that we seem to swallow it.

Foresight Is 20/20

Researchers identify 20 future conservation battlegrounds The soldiers of conservation have been given their marching orders. (Ah, martial metaphors … never can get the hang of them.) A new study has identified 20 future conservation battlegrounds around the world, from Alaska’s far north to the southern tip of the Australian island of Tasmania — hotspots where land-mammal species aren’t yet endangered but could be especially vulnerable in coming years due to pollution, deforestation, hunting, and other pressures. “Conservation is a crisis discipline,” said lead researcher Marcel Cardillo. “Because there are so many species on the verge of extinction, that’s where …

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