David Roberts

David Roberts

Energy, politics, and more

David Roberts is a staff writer for Grist. You can subscribe to his RSS feed or follow him on Twitter or email him at droberts at grist dot org, if you're into that sort of thing.

"Eco-terror" and the ELF

What’s the real reason the feds are spying on enviros?

LA Weekly's Judith Lewis has written a short but incisive piece on a subject dear to my heart: When the American Civil Liberties Union this week released a new batch of documents obtained from the FBI verifying that the federal agency has been monitoring domestic environmental- and animal-rights groups, it was only the latest evidence of government working on behalf of the anti-environmentalist industry and property-rights advocates to, as one of those advocates put it in 1992, "destroy the environmental movement." It's an effort that's been under way since the 1980s, using various tactics from intimidation to slander. Only recently have the anti-environmentalists hit upon their most promising idea yet: Linking environmentalism to terrorism. Lewis goes on to question whether the ELF (Earth Liberation Front) actually exists as an organization at all. Its alleged website is little more than a hook for a bunch of advertising; its alleged spokesmen are self-promoting cranks; the criminals allegedly connected to it deny any such connections. Indeed, the people who seem to have the most to gain from the ELF existing are Sen. James Inhofe (R-Okla.), the leaders of the wise-use movement, and certain industries whose excesses are threatened by environmental activism. Zealots need enemies, and if those enemies don't exist, zealots will create them. The documents the FBI has released so far, most of them heavily edited accounts of monitoring activities directed at Greenpeace and PETA, may be just the tip of the surveillance iceberg. "The reason we have the documents on PETA and Greenpeace is because we asked for them," says Ben Wizner, an attorney with the ACLU. "There have also been requests by local environmental groups around the country. They're trickling out. And I expect that because of these revelations there will be more groups that want to see their FBI files," he said. You could call the FBI surveillance a colossal waste of public resources, but Wizner thinks it's worse than that: Also in the documents obtained by the ACLU is a memo about a source planted within Greenpeace informing the agency that recent law-enforcement efforts have already damaged morale. As I've said before, the goal here is not just to hurt morale, not just to slander, but more specifically to question the tax-exempt status of certain powerful environmental organizations. I think it's far past time for the mainstream green movement to speak out about this publicly. They're letting their enemies define the terrain.

Monitor your electricity use

In the making-the-invisible-visible department, I give you the Kill-a-Watt, a $30 widget that plugs in between an electrical device and an outlet to tell you exactly how much electricity the device is using. I could plug one of these up between my power strip (computer/external hard drives/printer/scanner/monitor/speakers) and the outlet, but frankly I'm too scared. (via BB)

Make your own ecosystem

Choose dry-land or marine-aquatic! (via Digg)

McKibben and Sierra Magazine

Every column Bill McKibben writes on climate change becomes more dread-laden and portentous, but I never stop enjoying them. His latest is "Year One" in Sierra Magazine. The money clip: We will soon learn, for example, that what we've been calling "global warming" is better thought of as excess energy trapped in the atmosphere, which will express itself in every possible way. Like the Bush administration's energy bill, these manifestations will also be about "more": more evaporation in arid lands and then more flooding when it eventually rains; more wind as air pressure rises from warmer areas; more extreme heat waves like the one that killed tens of thousands of Europeans in 2003 or the one that cut North American grain yields by a third in 1988; more ecological disruption as summers lengthen, winters shorten, and sea levels rise; more disease as mosquitoes spread to once-cool climes; and even more nonlinear surprises like the possible shutdown of the Gulf Stream. Katrina revealed deep helplessness among our rulers. Part of it stemmed from cronyism and incompetence, part from the sheer overwhelming force of the blow. We will slowly recover, but even the United States has only so many hundreds of billions to spare. New Orleans will be rebuilt -- this time. But what if hurricanes like Katrina go from being once-in-a-century storms to once-in-a-decade-or-two storms? How many times will we rebuild? The same issue of Sierra has a Decoder on the edits made by Philip Cooney to federal climate-change reports. Quite incisive and entertaining. Then there's a set of Sebastiao Salgado photos from Galapagos (the photos aren't online, though), and a fascinating interview with Jaime Lerner, former mayor of Curitiba, Brazil, about his BRT (bus rapid transit) system. Is Sierra always this good?

China, China, China

Two interesting stories on China, one small, one large. The small one, in the L.A. Times, is about the latest toxic river spill in China and the government's quick and transparent response -- obviously it learned some lessons from last month's disastrous Songhua River spill. The long one, in the N.Y. Times, is about fledgling attempts by NGOs and citizen groups in China to have a say in big development projects. Specifically, it focuses on huge hydropower projects like the one planned for the Nu River. There are also some interesting details about the country's electricity situation. One study estimated that China might build enough new dams, most of them in Yunnan, to double its hydroelectric output in the next five years. One plan would inundate one of the most popular tourist attractions in China - Tiger Leaping Gorge. Part of the frenzied hydropower development is driven by the thirst for new energy supplies. But part of it is caused by the breakup of the state monopoly that once controlled electrical generation in China. That breakup left regional state-owned energy giants who were each assigned "assets" - like rivers or coal deposits. Each faces competitive pressures to develop new power plants quickly in order to claim market share. Mr. Ma, the environmental consultant in Beijing, said environmentalists understood that China faced a complex challenge in developing new energy sources even as it must reduce pollution. But he said this intense pressure to develop was why laws that provide oversight and public review must serve as safeguards. Lots of food for thought.

Rebuilding: He-said, she-said

Everything -- everything -- eventually becomes fodder for a partisan food fight. In some ways, the nation's response to Katrina is cleaving the public down partisan lines as a domestic issue, just as Iraq has on foreign policy. Both issues have become polarizing, rather than unifying, issues for the country, said Glen Bolger, a pollster for Hill Republicans. According to a poll this month for the Hotline political newsletter, which asked whether Congress should tackle Iraq or the Katrina recovery first in 2006, Americans wanted the Gulf Coast rebuilt by 58 percent to 28 percent. Democratic and independent voters generally agreed on addressing Katrina's problems, while self-identified Republicans chose Iraq, 46 percent to 37 percent. Update [2005-12-26 11:10:29 by David Roberts]: Also, don't miss the extremely thorough L.A. Times rundown on the history of bureaucratic feuding that doomed New Orleans' levees.


Have y'all heard of a site called Squidoo? People share their expertise on various subjects and then, in some way I'm not entirely clear on, make money from it. It's free to use, though. If I had any expertise on anything, maybe I'd "create a lens," as the site puts it. Here's the lens on green building. Pretty neat.

Utne Independent Press Award

Not to toot our own horn (toot! toot!), but I thought I'd draw your attention to the fact that Grist has won the 2005 Utne Independent Press Award for online political coverage. We are flattered.

Merry Christmas!

Just a quick note to wish all Grist (and Gristmill!) readers a Merry Christmas and Happy Holidays. Here's hoping Santa brought all of us what we really need: Enough courage and compassion to overcome fear.

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