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Claire Thompson's Posts


Bills to ban fracking in California move forward

a no-fracking sign

Could California put a halt to fracking? Some lawmakers are pushing legislation that would do just that.

On Monday, the state Assembly’s Natural Resources Committee approved no fewer than three bills calling for a moratorium on hydraulic fracturing until its environmental and health effects are thoroughly studied by the state. Meanwhile, another bill pending in the state Senate would allow fracking to continue for now but would impose a moratorium if the state fails to complete a comprehensive review by January 2015.

David Roberts recently offered a list of reasons why a California fracking frenzy is a bad idea, one of which is the lack of oversight from state regulators so far. The new proposed bills aim to address this problem. From The Sacramento Bee:


Millennial medium chill: What the screwed generation can teach us about happiness

About a year ago, during a cross-faded conversation that felt profound but probably sounded more like this, a friend told me about Strauss-Howe generational theory, a scholarly take on the somewhat narcissistic assumption that each generation has a signature personality that leaves a unique mark on world culture and history. Strauss and Howe identify four archetypes -- prophets, nomads, heroes, or artists -- that can define an entire generation based on the societal conditions they grew up in.

Humblebrag alert: Millennials comprise a Hero Generation. This means we were born “during a time of individual pragmatism, self-reliance, and laissez faire” (in other words, the Reagan/Bush Sr./Clinton years) and are coming of age “as team-oriented young optimists during a Crisis.” If that all sounds too conveniently perfect, remember that Strauss and Howe came up with this back in 1991, when Barack Obama was still fresh out of law school and millennials were just psyched to be able to watch The Little Mermaid over and over on VHS.

Portraits of millennials from the Geography of Youth project. Click to embiggen.
The Geography of Youth
Portraits of millennials from the Geography of Youth project. Click to embiggen.

I was born in 1989, which puts me about in the middle of the millennials (the generation loosely includes today’s 18- to 32-year-olds, but the parameters aren’t set in stone). I’ve always enjoyed waxing philosophical about the effects of shared cultural experiences, geeking out on everything from the parallels between Vietnam and Iraq to the age-perfect timing of each Harry Potter book release (the final volume came out the summer I graduated from high school, and the two occasions were almost equally momentous). I liked to ask my baby boomer parents about their childhoods in the '60s and '70s, and hearing their memories made me eager to speculate on what my generation’s place in history would be.

Crowds took to the streets on election night 2012 in Seattle to celebrate Obama's reelection and Washington state's legalization of gay marriage and marijuana. Click to embiggen.
Jordan Stead
Crowds took to the streets on election night 2012 in Seattle to celebrate Obama's reelection and Washington state's legalization of gay marriage and marijuana. Click to embiggen.
Happiness small
Susie Cagle

So what are millennials known for, so far? Well, to start with the obvious, we’re fucked financially. Anecdotes abound of millennials slaving away as unpaid interns and underpaid assistants, or slacking off as overqualified retail reps and baristas. “Generation Screwed,” Joel Kotkin called us in a thoroughly depressing July 2012 Newsweek feature that laid out the various headwinds holding us back: staggering levels of student debt (at least $25,000 on average, according to the latest reports); a 13.1 percent unemployment rate for 18- to 29-year-olds, compared to 7.9 percent nationally; and “a mountain of boomer- and senior-incurred debt ... a toxic legacy handed over to offspring who will have to pay it off in at least three ways: through higher taxes, less infrastructure and social spending, and, fatefully, the prospect of painfully slow growth for the foreseeable future.”

Research shows that entering the workforce during a deep recession can have lasting effects [PDF] on future wages, even if the economy eventually bounces back. That lag is already visible for Generations X and Y: In 2010, Americans under 40 had accumulated 7 percent less wealth than 20- and 30-somethings in 1983 had, according to an Urban Institute study [PDF].

Kelly, 20, of Lubbock, Texas, says her biggest concern is money. "My parents have next to nothing so I am constantly worried about what I can do to have enough to buy food alone."
The Geography of Youth
Kelly, 20, of Lubbock, Texas, says her biggest concern is money. "My parents have next to nothing so I am constantly worried about what I can do to have enough to buy food alone."

We’re off to a rocky start, and the path ahead only looks to get steeper and more slippery. Which led a recent article by Annie Lowrey in The New York Times -- one of the latest entries in the popular Millennial Misfortunes genre -- to ask, in its headline, “Do Millennials Stand a Chance in the Real World?” Ouch.

Read more: Living


Beleaguered bees catch a break as E.U. bans dangerous pesticides

Now I can forage without fear.
Nick Foster
Now I can forage without fear.

Heads up, pollinators of the world: Now would be a great time to take that European vacation you’ve always dreamed of. The European Commission -- the E.U.’s governing body -- voted on Monday to implement a continent-wide ban on the class of insecticides widely suspected of contributing to colony collapse disorder, the mysterious phenomenon that’s been decimating bee populations since 2006.

In January, the European Food Safety Authority warned that three types of neonicotinoid pesticides should be considered unacceptable for use based on their danger to bees. A growing body of scientific evidence has found that, while neonics can't be blamed directly for colony collapse disorder, they do mess with bees’ navigation, foraging, and communication abilities, throw off their reproductive patterns, and weaken their immune systems, leaving colonies more vulnerable to natural threats like mites and fungi. Neonics are the world’s most ubiquitous pesticides, used extensively on major crops like corn, soy, and canola. They're applied to seeds before planting and then show up in the pollen bees come to collect.

Three neonics -- thiamethoxam, clothianidin, and imidacloprid -- will be banned for two years from use on crops bees pollinate, likely starting in December. From the BBC:


Meet the woman who shut down Chicago’s dirty coal plants

Kimberly Wasserman.
Kimberly Wasserman.

Last summer, clean-air activists celebrated the shutdown of Chicago’s notorious Fisk and Crawford coal power plants, which ended the Windy City’s distinction as the only U.S. metropolis to house two operating coal facilities. The victory came thanks to a dogged grassroots battle waged by residents of Little Village and Pilsen, the predominantly Latino, working-class neighborhoods bearing the brunt of the plants’ pollution. Today, the woman who spearheaded that battle, lifelong Little Village resident Kimberly Wasserman, becomes North America's recipient of the Goldman Environmental Prize, one of the highest honors in the world for grassroots green activism.

Wasserman was 21 when her infant son suffered his first asthma attack. She had just started working for the Little Village Environmental Justice Organization (LVEJO), doing door-to-door surveys gauging neighbors’ environmental concerns, so she started asking around about asthma and respiratory issues, which turned out to be common problems in the community. Soon after, a Harvard School of Public Health study confirmed LVEJO’s suspicions that the coal plants might have something to do with the high rates of asthma in the neighborhood, and Wasserman started organizing.

We got a chance to talk with Wasserman about what it took to kick Big Coal to the curb.

Q. Tell me about what motivated you to take on this issue. How long had you lived in Little Village, and how aware were you of environmental health issues before?

A. I was born and raised in Little Village. I’ve lived here 32 out of the 36 years that I’ve been on this lovely planet. I didn’t know a whole lot about air quality or environmental issues before entering this job [at LVEJO]. [When] my baby was about two months old, he had his first asthma attack. I started focusing my door-to-door conversations to try to understand how many other people had family members with respiratory issues. We found that an alarming number of people in our neighborhood had asthma. So we started to look at, what is in our neighborhood? We found the coal power plants. A lot of folks didn’t know what they did there; the smoke was white and very unassuming, and so a lot of young people called it the cloud factory because they thought that’s where clouds came from.

It made us want to understand, well, how do you burn coal? The more we researched, we were surprised that our local government would allow such dirty and outdated technology. In 2000, Harvard School of Public Health released a study about coal power plants in Illinois, and the information about the Crawford and Fisk plant[s] was very astounding. There were over 3,000 asthma attacks, 1,500 emergency room visits, and 41 deaths a year attributed to these coal power plants. And then on top of that, we found out the coal power plant didn’t supply electricity to the city of Chicago or the state of Illinois.

Q. How did you share what you’d found out with the neighborhood and organize people to fight for change?


Street-smart seeds: How to grow a garden that feels at home in the city

Zach Pickens.
Chrissa Yee
Zach Pickens.

When Zach Pickens first started gardening on his New York rooftop six years ago, he learned the hard way that growing plants in an urban environment isn’t the same as tending them in a suburban backyard. “The first year was really terrible,” he says. But he welcomed the challenge, and his struggles prompted him to learn more about the science of gardening -- microclimates, ecosystems, seed development.

Seed saving -- the practice of collecting the seeds of naturally reproducing plants to be used again from year to year -- particularly intrigued him. “I got interested first and foremost because it was saving me money. I’d save my own seed and didn’t have to buy [more] next year,” Pickens says. As he immersed himself in New York’s urban-gardening culture, he started to see seed saving’s potential to help the movement thrive, and wanted to spread the word.

Pickens noticed that if he saved the seed of the season’s healthiest plants, next year’s crop would be even better -- he was essentially selecting for whatever traits helped his veggies grow best in containers on the roof. Before Monsanto and other corporate giants began pushing patented seeds that didn’t reproduce, forcing farmers to buy new seed every year, seed saving was a common practice that not only saved growers money but produced hardier plants, as the varieties selected year after year adapted to local conditions. By saving seed, Pickens can home in on plants that thrive in the hyper-local conditions unique to the big city.

Okra, for example, takes advantage of the urban heat island effect, in which all that concrete and asphalt absorbs the day’s heat, making New York City toastier than nearby rural communities. “In the city we can grow okra pretty well because it stays so warm through the night,” Pickens explains. “The okra loves it.”

Read more: Cities, Food


Salt, sugar, and fat: Why we can’t quit junk food’s holy trinity


Veteran New York Times journalist Michael Moss entered the world of food reporting when he covered a salmonella outbreak in a Georgia peanut factory, a story he came to see as being about “loss of control by the food industry.” He followed up on that theme with an investigation of E. coli-tainted Cargill hamburger, which earned him a Pulitzer Prize in 2010. Around that time, he says, a close source told him, “As bad as these contamination incidents are, there’s this other public-health crisis out there that’s caused by the stuff we intentionally put it into processed foods, and have absolute control over.” Meaning, of course, salt, sugar, and fat -- the “holy trinity” of processed-food ingredients, and the namesake of Moss’ new book.

Salt Sugar Fat: How the Food Giants Hooked Us traces how these ingredients worked their way into our food in ever-larger amounts, not by accident but as part of a concerted effort by food companies to make their products as irresistible and addictive as possible. Moss profiles the food scientists whom corporations like Kellogg and Kraft pay to formulate exact combinations of ingredients that target consumers’ "bliss point": where food is as tasty as possible without being so satisfying that we stop wanting more. Think junk food like Cheez-Its, movie-theater popcorn, and Oreos: You can kill a whole bag of the stuff without even noticing.

Moss reveals how fundamental these ingredients have become to the processed-food industry’s entire model: how sugar intensifies our cravings; how fat and sugar work together to make products vastly more tasty than either ingredient could alone; how fat plays up a given food's most desirable traits (such as smooth texture) while masking others (like the acidity of sour cream), and how salt smothers the chemical tinge that would otherwise make most junk food inedible. Salt, sugar, and fat also make possible the long shelf life and easy preparation that inspired the term “convenience food” and sold it to a new generation of working moms.

We got a chance to chat with Moss when he stopped by the Grist office last week. Here are some highlights from our conversation. (Interview has been condensed and edited.)

Q. Salt Sugar Fat reveals parallels between the food industry and tobacco industry’s efforts to get us hooked on their products -- not just through creative marketing, but by focusing on the way our bodies react to key ingredients. Does this mean we could legally go after food companies in the same way?

Michael Moss.
Michael Moss.

A. The processed-food industry is entirely confident it can withstand tobacco-type litigation. I think their confidence comes from the difference between tobacco and food, inherently, and the difficulty that a lawyer would have blaming any one company or any one product for the obesity crisis or diabetes.

That said, there’s certainly nothing stopping the states from going after processed food collectively, because the estimates are that obesity is causing as much as $300 billion in extra medical expenses and lost productivity every year. So it’s probably a [bigger] issue financially for the health system than even tobacco.

Read more: Food, Living


Plate tech-tonics: How smartphones can help stop food waste

Still working on that?
Still working on that?

Imagine if every time you ordered a pizza, you opened the box, removed four or five grease-dripping slices -- loaded with sausage, pepperoni, mushrooms, the works -- and tossed them in the trash. That, in effect, is what Americans as a group do every day: From farm to table, we waste an estimated 40 percent of all the food produced in this country. Meanwhile, 50 million people in the United States don’t know where their next meal is coming from.

We all deserve some of the credit for this waste -- from farmers to grocers to you and me letting our leftovers grow mold in the fridge. But now, a bunch of smart people are harnessing mobile technology to cut down on the amount of food that ends up in the dumpster -- and get more of it to people in need.

“People in the food industry know how much food they waste, and they don’t like it at all,” says Roger Gordon, co-founder of one such new platform, Food Cowboy. He found this out from his brother, Richard, a truck driver who often hauls produce and wanted to do something with the loads of rejected, or “kicked,” fruits and veggies he ends up with about once a week. “When it’s kicked for cosmetic reasons -- the eggplant has the wrong barcode, the eggplant’s not straight enough -- and he’s told to throw it away, he’s called me,” Gordon says. He’d work the phone and the web to find a food bank near Richard’s route that could accept the unwanted produce, sparing it from being tossed.

“We finally got smart and figured out, if these different apps [like Yelp] can help you find a place to buy food to eat, they can help you find a place to take food for other people to eat,” says Gordon.

Food Cowboy, still in beta, works with two large trucking companies and about 20 local charities along the East Coast’s I-95 corridor. If, for example, a pallet of cherry tomatoes falls over and the shipment is rejected, the trucking company sends an alert that allows Food Cowboy to query its nonprofit partners along the truck’s route: “Who can handle 40 crates of cherry tomatoes?” The platform accomplishes what used to be a time-consuming search almost instantly, making it much more likely that the orphaned tomatoes will find a home.

“Think of it as an air traffic controller for organic matter,” Gordon says. “If you’re a food charity, you’ve got the logistics ability of anybody else in the food chain now.”


Big Sky’s the limit: How to make local food lucrative in Montana

The Community Food Coop's main location.
The Bozeman Community Food Co-op's flagship location.

You wouldn’t think that a place like the Community Food Co-op in Bozeman, Mont., has much work to do when it comes to sustainability. Yelp reviews describe the place variously as “perhaps the nicest cooperative grocery in the country,” with “local, organic, down-to-earth options” and patrons that fit “the stereotypical Bozeman granola or hippie type.” In this college town of 38,000 people, the co-op boasts 20,000 members -- a sign that it must be doing something right.

But even with that kind of green cred, there’s room for improvement. Despite its longstanding commitment to sourcing locally, the co-op still managed to double the amount of local food it purchased in 2012, and saw sales rise accordingly -- joining the growing ranks of institutions around the country getting serious about connecting people with local farms and food.

The Community Food Co-op has two locations, both of which sell deli food that’s prepared at a large central kitchen in a separate building. Though the stores’ produce departments offer some local fare, until recently, the central kitchen relied mostly on a large out-of-state distributor to provide the ingredients for its soups, sandwiches, and hot meals (things like stir-fried veggies, mac ‘n’ cheese, sweet-and-sour tofu, and fried rice). The alternative -- working directly with growers -- is much more labor-intensive, not to mention risky. As central kitchen manager Christina Waller puts it, “It’s hard to know when you’re going to get a hailstorm.”

Christina Waller at work in the coop's central kitchen.
Christina Waller at work in the co-op's central kitchen.

Waller, who's 36 and hails from Atlanta originally, studied nutrition as an undergraduate and always valued good food, but her job at the co-op -- she started in 2006 -- was the “catalyst,” she says, that pushed her to get a master’s degree in sustainable food systems. Inspired to put what she’d learned into practice, Waller started volunteering at Bozeman’s Three Hearts Farm, where farmer Dean Williamson grows everything from spinach to fava beans and lemon cucumbers on his seven acres.

She saw the abundance of good food growing there -- all without pesticides -- and compared it to the produce trucked in to the co-op from Spokane, Wash. “After a week out [on the farm], I was like, ‘Why don’t we have more local produce?’”

Waller started asking other local farmers about buying wholesale produce. For small growers who typically sell to CSAs and farmers markets, bulk orders can require some scrambling. “It was a new thing for them, for us to suddenly be asking for hundreds of pounds of produce,” she says, so she made it clear that she was open to working with what the farmers had available. If a cool summer led to a paltry tomato crop, for example, she could supplement with inferior trucked-in versions; if a local grower had an abundance of squash, then butternut squash soup could become a daily staple instead of a weekly special.

“Making that commitment to buy the food and deal with all the unpredictables -- it takes a leap of faith,” says Williamson, who’s only been farming for five years (but “it feels like a lifetime.”) “Until you see it work.”


Friends with benefits: New tool uses Facebook to speed up sharing

Sharing brings us closer.
Ed Yourdon / flickr
Sharing brings us closer.

The interwebs these days are packed with sites designed to help you get rid of your old couch, offload that pile of scrap lumber from the garage, and otherwise share your stuff with everyone else on the planet. Mr. Rogers would be proud. But do we really need another "sharing" tool?

Adam Werbach thinks so. That’s why the former Sierra Club president and author of Strategy for Sustainability founded yerdle, an online sharing platform that launched in the Bay Area in November and spreads to New York City this month. He and cofounders Andy Ruben and Carl Tashian recognize that we already do an awful lot of sharing. “We just want to help speed it up,” he says. “We set out to make it as easy to share things with friends as it is to buy things.”

Yerdle follows in the footsteps of platforms like NeighborGoods and the now-defunct OhSoWe. But unlike its predecessors, it works through Facebook, connecting users to their “friends” and friends of friends. Dana Frasz, a self-described freegan and an early Bay Area yerdle user, says those fewer degrees of separation set the service apart from established giving-economy platforms like Freecycle. “You’re meeting people who know your people, but you just haven’t been connected yet,” she says.

“It seemed like every single person I met on yerdle was awesome,” Frasz continues. “Instead of just a Freecycle pickup where someone leaves [an item] on their door handle, I’d wind up talking with these people for an hour.”


Baby, you can drive my car: How car sharing teaches us to be good neighbors


When news got out a few weeks ago that car-rental company Avis had purchased the popular car-sharing service Zipcar, many reacted warily, wondering if the deal would kill Zipcar’s grassroots ethos. Others found such negativity overblown, calling the move not only unsurprising but smart, on both Avis’ and Zipcar’s parts. Whatever the future of Zipcar (and it’s hard to imagine Avis changing its model in any significant way), it’s undeniably helped us reimagine our relationship with cars – and maybe, at the same time, with our neighbors, too.

Over the 13 years since Zipcar’s founding, more of us have realized that the mobility we desire doesn’t require owning a car. In fact, for many of us city dwellers, especially young, single, and/or not-very-high-income ones, a car can be more of a burden than a convenience, once you factor in the price of gas and insurance and the hassle and expense of finding parking.

That doesn’t mean that we have no use for driving, however. Whether you’re car-free by choice or by circumstance, you’ve no doubt experienced the occasional surge of longing for a vehicle, when it’s pouring rain and the bus is late, or when you realize, walking home from the grocery store with several heavy bags, that you vastly overestimated your own strength and stamina. Zipcar (and its earlier peers, like Flexcar, with which it eventually merged) showed us that you don’t need to own a car to use one. Cars, like bikes and buses, can be just another element of a multi-modal transportation system -- a system that offers people a range of transit options and makes it easy to combine them.

“The U.S. has always been car-centric. I don’t see car-sharing itself changing that,” says Nick Cole, CEO of car2go North America, one of the latest companies to arrive on the sharing scene. “Not everybody’s going to be able to afford a car … but there’s going to be a need for this transportation.”

Zipcar saw that need and inspired a wave of other car-sharing operations to improve and build upon its model.