Stuff that matters

Little(r) home on the prairie

We plowed up more wild habitat in the Great Plains than in the Brazilian Amazon in 2014.

The Great Plains lost 3,686,960 acres that year; in contrast, the Brazilian Amazon lost 1.4 million, as the World Wildlife Fund points out.

The WWF calculates that an area the size of Kansas has been converted to row crops since 2009. That puts monarch butterflies — along with many other species of birds, plants, and insects — at risk.

“America’s Great Plains are being plowed under at an alarming rate,” said WWF’s Martha Kauffman in a statement. “Centuries old, critical prairie habitat that’s home to amazing wildlife and strong ranching and tribal communities is rapidly being converted to cropland and most people don’t even realize it.”

Ultimately, there are just two ways to stop conversion of land to agriculture: Reduce demand (i.e. eat less meat, use less biofuel), or grow more food in less space. More here.

flint lives matter

Racism was a big factor in the Flint water crisis, a new report explains.

The Michigan Civil Rights Commission — a governor-appointed board established in 1963 to investigate and prevent discrimination — released a 138-page report on the Flint situation on Friday, and it’s damning.

Based on a year-long study, the report details how government failed Flint’s black residents for decades. Implicit bias and systemic racism ingrained in housing, education, infrastructure, and emergency management all perpetuated discrimination and eventually led to toxic lead levels in Flint’s water. The commission writes, “fixing the problems that originated in Flint’s latest chapter will address the tumor but not the cancer.”

Central to the report are recommendations for preventing Flint-style disasters in the future. They range from the simple — listen to residents more and relocate meetings to affected communities — to the challenging — adopt a new statewide environmental justice plan and restructure Michigan’s emergency manager law.

Though the report documents racism, it says those seeking to file claims over civil rights violations “will face an uphill climb” because racism and discrimination often harm people of color obliquely, within the law.

Its conclusion is pointed. “That the problem is systemic doesn’t mean there is nobody to blame,” the commission writes. “We are all to blame.”

fowl play

The Great Backyard Bird Count is losing feathers due to climate change.

The National Audubon Society’s annual count, which runs Feb. 17–20 this year, encourages people to identify and report the birds they see in their neighborhoods. They’re likely to spot fewer winter migrants and more warmer-weather birds that have no business up north. And so a treasured American pastime has opened a climatic can of worms.

In 2014, an Audubon report revealed that 314 of 588 bird species studied in North America would lose over half their climatic range (where birds are usually found) by 2080. And 126 of those species are classified as “climate endangered.”

Citizen-scientists who participate in bird counts witness those climate threats firsthand. They see precipitous drops in the populations of birds such as wood thrushes, finches, and waterfowl. On the other hand, semi-hardy species like robins and white-throated sparrows have expanded their usually southern ranges.

Thanks to a mild winter and climate-driven storms, binoculared birders have recently spotted species where they’ve never been spotted before. Apparently some Texan Great Kiskadees have wandered up to South Dakota, and midwestern Orchard Orioles wound up in New England.

So if you see a toucan in New Jersey, you’re not crazy — it’s just the climate.

Pipe dream

Elon Musk has started digging a tunnel under Los Angeles.

In December, when Musk got stuck in traffic, instead of leaning on the horn or flipping off the other drivers, he decided to build a new transportation system. An hour later, Max Chafkin writes in Bloomberg Businessweek, “the project had a name and a marketing platform. ‘It shall be called The Boring Company,’” Musk wrote.

Musk told employees to grab some heavy machinery and they began digging a hole in the SpaceX parking lot. He bought one of those machines that bores out tunnels and lays down concrete walls as it goes. It’s named Nannie.

Musk is the grown-up version of the kid who decides to dig to China: He doesn’t pause to plan or ask what’s possible, he just grabs a stick and starts shoveling. Maybe that’s the approach we need. As Chafkin points out, “Tunnel technology is older than rockets, and boring speeds are pretty much what they were 50 years ago.” And Bent Flyvbjerg, an academic who studies why big projects cost so much, says that the tunneling industry is ripe for someone with new ideas to shake things up.

Musk is a technical genius. But the things that make tunnels expensive tend to be political — they have to do with endless hearings before local government councils and concessions to satisfy concerned neighbors and politicians. For that stultifying process, at least, Musk’s new company is aptly named. If Musk figures out how disrupt local land-use politics, it would mean he’s smarter than anyone thinks.

Spoiler Alert

Sell-by dates are expiring.

You know sell-by dates. They’re those little tags stuck to your pre-made sandwich at the deli, or printed on the milk carton at the grocery store. Now two of the most influential food-industry players — The Grocery Manufacturers Association and the Food Marketing Institute — want to get rid of them, according to Dan Charles at NPR.

Why? Because they cause food waste. They provide information that’s useful to sellers but misleading to buyers. People confuse it for the eat-by date and wind up trashing perfectly good, edible food.

Environmental groups have been pushing companies to get rid of sell-by dates for a long time. The USDA has recommended that companies just start using the words “Best if used by.”

That would be a big improvement. But it’s not an exact science. You should know that most food is fine past its use-by date, but food can always spoil before that date. So read the label, but also use your nose and brain.

whole fools

Whole Foods is finally getting its comeuppance.

The notoriously pricey grocery chain will close nine stores after six consecutive quarters of plummeting same-store sales. It seems $6 asparagus-infused water and bouquets of California ornamental kale just aren’t flying off the shelves.

There’s a bitter green irony here: The organic products the chain popularized are now more popular than ever, just not at Whole Foods. Americans bought three times more organic food in 2015 than in 2005. But now, superstores like Kroger, Walmart, and Target are selling organic food at reasonable prices that threaten Whole Foods’ claim to the all-natural throne.

To compete in a crowded lower-cost organic market, the company launched a new chain in April 2016: 365 by Whole Foods Market, aka Whole Foods for Broke People. The 365 stores are cheaper to build, require less staff, and offer goods at lower prices.

Whole Foods may have a squeaky clean image, but that doesn’t square with its labor practices. The company has historically quashed employees’ attempts to unionize, and it sold goat cheese produced with prison labor until last April.

Still, if you’ve a hankering for “Veganic Sprouted Ancient Maize Flakes,” we’re pretty sure that Whole Foods has that market cornered.

Make the ESA great again?

What would it mean to “modernize” the Endangered Species Act?

Nothing good, conservationists say, after a Senate Committee held a hearing on the topic on Wednesday.

Republicans have long criticized the 43-year-old law because protections for species have led to restrictions on drillingmining, and logging. Now they are gearing up to change it.

In 2015, the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service said the act had kept 99 percent of endangered or threatened species from going extinct. But Wyoming Sen. John Barrasso, who organized the hearing, has a much more negative take, pointing out that less than 3 percent of animals and plants added to the endangered species list have recovered enough to be delisted.

At the hearing, former Wyoming Gov. Dave Freudenthal urged updates to the law like requiring more data before species can be listed. A Wisconsin beef and grain farmer, Jim Holte, spoke about the difficulties farmers face protecting livestock from wolves, whose listings have sparked legal battles.

Conservationists also testified at the hearing, arguing that the law is needed to protect species like the bald eagle. And environmental groups sent a letter to Barrasso arguing that the act is effective.

But Republicans seem bent on making changes. Maybe President Trump can convince them otherwise. After all, he has very strong feelings about eagles.