I've been writing a lot about the activist campaign to block the Keystone XL pipeline. Much of that writing has been devoted to pushing back against the squadron of Very Serious People who want to pooh-pooh the campaign as mistargeted, misguided, and futile.
But whether you like the campaign or not, it's too late for second-guessing at this point. The fight is underway; it's already freighted with symbolism. Within the next few months, the Keystone decision will be made, for good or ill. Then the question arises: What's next for the climate movement?
This is an opportunity to take a step back and think carefully about the effort to address climate change and the role activism plays in it. I'll probably do several posts on this -- it's a rich subject -- and I hope others will join in the discussion too.
I want to kick things off by discussing one important distinction that has lurked beneath a lot of the conflict over Keystone:
Supply vs. demand
One of the recurring critiques of the Keystone campaign goes like this:
What if the agricultural revolution has already happened and we didn’t realize it? Essentially, that’s the idea in this report from the Guardian about a group of poverty-stricken Indian rice and potato farmers who harvested confirmed world-record yields of rice and potatoes. Best of all: They did it completely sans-GMOs or even chemicals of any kind.
[Sumant] Kumar, a shy young farmer in Nalanda district of India's poorest state Bihar, had -- using only farmyard manure and without any herbicides -- grown an astonishing 22.4 tonnes of rice on one hectare [~2.5 acres] of land. This was a world record and with rice the staple food of more than half the world's population of seven billion, big news.
It beat not just the 19.4 tonnes achieved by the "father of rice", the Chinese agricultural scientist Yuan Longping, but the World Bank-funded scientists at the International Rice Research Institute in the Philippines, and anything achieved by the biggest European and American seed and GM companies. And it was not just Sumant Kumar. Krishna, Nitish, Sanjay and Bijay, his friends and rivals in Darveshpura, all recorded over 17 tonnes, and many others in the villages around claimed to have more than doubled their usual yields.
Another Bihar farmer broke India’s wheat-growing record the same year. They accomplished all this without GMOs or advanced seed hybrids, artificial fertilizer or herbicide. Instead, they used a technique called System of Rice [or root] Intensification (SRI). It’s a technique developed in Madagascar in the 1980s by a French Jesuit and then identified and promulgated by Cornell political scientist and international development specialist Norman Uphoff.
SRI for rice involves starting with fewer, more widely spaced plants; using less water; actively aerating the soil; and applying lots of organic fertilizer. According to Uphoff’s SRI Institute website [PDF], the farmers who use synthetic fertilizer with the technique get lower yields than those who farm organically. How’s that for pleasant irony?
The breadth of the results in Bihar have gotten international attention. The Guardian reports that economist Joseph Stieglitz, a Nobel laureate and international development aficionado, visited the area last month. After seeing their amazing results, he declared the farmers “better than scientists.”
High praise aside, the technique is not without its detractors.
Early on a Thursday morning, six days after a giant feathery serpent failed to consume the planet as the Mayan calendar ended and the world didn’t, I left Louisville looking for answers. It looked to be a long day -- I had a two-hour drive ahead of me and I wanted to spend as much time as possible at the Creation Museum, a state-of-the-art, Bible-based “science” museum in Petersburg, Ky. One thinly understood ancient text had failed to tell me when the world was going to end, but maybe another could tell me how it started.
The Creation Museum opened to long lines and international attention in May of 2007. The 70,000-square-foot, $27 million facility sits on 49 sprawling acres just 10 minutes from the Cincinnati airport -- putting it “within one hour's flight of 69 percent of America's population," according to Ken Ham, president of both the museum and its parent organization, Answers In Genesis.
While the location might make geographic sense, Kentucky’s topography makes it an odd fit. Most of the state is lumpy, like a great earthen bed sheet rumpled by the crashing of continental plates -- and that Kentucky earth is full of dinosaurs. One would think it would be hard to reconcile all those lumps and fossils with a worldview that smashes the entire history of the universe into 6,000 years -- but the museum promises to do just that, explaining away millions of years of plate tectonics with the wrathful fist of an angry God cracking Earth’s crust with a heavenly haymaker at the start of the flood that sent Noah scurrying to fill his ark with aardvarks, ostriches, antelopes, and, yes, dinosaurs. In fact, like the ark, the Creation Museum is rumored to be chock full of the thunder lizards.
I’m going to be honest here. It all seemed a mite tough to swallow, but I’m a sucker for dinosaurs, and I’d been looking forward to visiting the museum for months. Still, as I pulled onto the grounds through a pair of stone gates topped with wrought-iron stegosauruses, I began to feel a lead pit in my stomach. I felt like a dirty double agent. I like to think I’m open-minded -- it’s a basic tenet of the scientific method that nothing is ever truly certain and that evidence trumps all -- but I couldn't imagine this place changing minds.
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.”
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.”
Great minds think alike. And so it was that this weekend the country’s two most prestigious daily newspapers both brought us stories of how sleepy, prosperous suburbs of their respective cities are developing hip downtowns with all the accoutrements of a gentrified urban neighborhood. Out with the chain store surrounded by parking lots, in with the yoga studio and “vintage” clothing boutique on Main Street.
The New York Times reports that hipsters are fleeing Brooklyn and Manhattan’s East Village for towns along the Hudson River. “You no longer have to take the L train to experience this slice of cosmopolitan bohemia,” the Times claims. “Instead, you’ll find it along the Metro-North Railroad, roughly 25 miles north of Williamsburg, Brooklyn, in the suburb of Hastings-on-Hudson, N.Y.”
Meanwhile, the Washington Post published a story about Montgomery County, Md., a collection of leafy, wealthy suburbs, that, in the hopes of appealing to young professionals, is making plans to build pedestrian-friendly downtown areas and seeking trendy stores to fill them. “For all its prosperity and family-friendly suburban appeal, Montgomery is in the throes of a midlife crisis,” the Post writes. “That angst has led to a new item at the top of the public policy agenda: a yearning to be hip.”
Keystone is getting all the attention, but the brewing battle over coal exports in the Pacific Northwest is, from a pure carbon standpoint, far more significant. Right now one of the main problems for climate hawks is that all the decisions about new coal trains and coal export terminals are being made locally, one at a time, as rail and coal companies bribe this town and that town with promises of economic development. There's no global assessment being done and no real plan in place.
The U.S. Army Corps of Engineers has refused thus far to do a comprehensive assessment, which is absurd -- something to rally behind after the Keystone thing is resolved, perhaps. But most of the real authority lies in the hands of state lawmakers. So climate hawks have been watching new Washington Gov. Jay Inslee (D) and Oregon Gov. John Kitzhaber (D) like, um, hawks.
Kitzhaber, who has called for a federal review of coal ports before, had some interesting things to say yesterday at a summit of the American Wind Energy Association. Here's a short clip:
Last year, the New York Times put Oakland at No. 5 on its list of “the 45 places to go in 2012,” citing the city’s bars, restaurants, art, and music. The Huffington Post called the city “the coolest new kid in the country.” City officials sent out a press release and made a banner for City Hall celebrating these new honors.
“Oakland is on the rise as a national leader in green building, technology, and international trade. And we’re a nationally acclaimed center for dining, arts, and entertainment,” Mayor Jean Quan said last May, on the occasion of the city’s 160th birthday. “It is why those of us who live here, love our city.”
Notably missing from the city’s PR materials was the fact that Oakland hit No. 5 in another national ranking last year: the FBI’s list of the most violent cities. Oakland saw 131 murders in 2012, a 22 percent increase from the previous year, and a 43 percent rise in burglaries.
While the rest of California is rebounding from the recession, Oakland is struggling with crime, mismanagement, debt, and continued fallout from the mortgage crisis. The city’s police department is under federal monitoring, and millions spent on expensive consultants, most recently former LAPD and NYPD police chief Bill Bratton, have done little to challenge the status quo.
And yet many in Oakland’s growing “creative class” are in denial. Asked to comment about the problems for a recent story in Bloomberg, Doug Leeds, CEO of Ask.com, which moved to Oakland in 2004, was dismissive:
“We certainly read the stories and we see the figures increasing, but on a daily basis, we come to work and we don’t feel the impact of it,” Leeds said. “We don’t see crime tape on the streets, we don’t see chalk outlines of people, there aren't bullet noises.”
That’s nice for Leeds, but, though he apparently doesn't see it, Oakland is also in the midst of a housing, education, and employment crisis. It’s going to be hard to solve these problems if the new, well-to-do residents don’t acknowledge they exist, and even contribute to making them worse.
Behind the counter at Seattle’s Taylor Shellfish Market, a brawny guy with a goatee pries open kumamoto, virginica, and shigoku oysters as easily as other men pop beer cans. David Leck is a national oyster shucking champion who opened and plated a dozen of them in just over a minute (time is added for broken shells or mangled meat) at the 2012 Boston International Oyster Shucking Competition. You have to be quick, these days, to keep up with demand. The oysters here were grown nearby in Taylor’s century-old beds, but the current hunger for pedigreed mollusks on the half shell stretches to raw bars and markets across the country.
A similar oyster craze swept the United States in the 1800s, when the bivalves were eaten with alacrity in New York, San Francisco, and anywhere else that could get them fresh. Development of a fancy new technology, canning, meant there was money in preserved oysters, too. Gold miners in Northern California celebrated their riches with an oyster omelet called hangtown fry. New Yorkers ate them on the street; late at night they ate them in “oyster cellars.” Walt Whitman had them for breakfast.
That wave crashed. By the early 1900s, oysters were disappearing because of overharvesting and water pollution. Today’s revival is possible because oyster farms are better managed, and regulations have improved water quality. But a modern threat looms for ice-chilled fruits de mer platters, although it’s hard to tell with oyster juice on your chin. This time it’s a worldwide problem, affecting marine ecosystems everywhere. Ocean waters are turning corrosive, and it’s happening so quickly scientists say there may not be any oysters left to eat in coming decades.
Ocean acidification, as scientists call this pickling of the seas, is, like climate change, a result of the enormous amount of carbon dioxide humans have pumped into the atmosphere. Oceans have absorbed about a quarter of that output, and ocean chemistry has changed as a result. Surface water pH has long been an alkaline 8.2, not far from the pH of baking soda, but it now averages about 8.1. That doesn’t look like much, but since pH is a logarithmic scale, that means a 30 percent increase in the acidity. By the end of this century, surface water pH could further lower to 7.8 or below.
We don’t yet know who the ocean’s winners and losers will be in the more corrosive world.
Yesterday I wrote a response to Andy Revkin's recent New York Times post on Keystone. As vexing as I often find him (and him me!), Revkin is curious about how the world works, open to feedback and new information, and proceeding from a place of humanitarian concern on climate change. It's fun and fruitful to engage with him.
And then there's his colleague, Joe Nocera.
Nocera's latest New York Times column in favor of Keystone -- his third -- is mostly about how he didn't meet with climate scientist James Hansen, because Hansen was off getting arrested. In it, Nocera selectively quotes from a bit of private email that makes Hansen appear critical of Bill McKibben, which can only be described as a spectacular dick move. But Nocera makes no mention of the supporting material Hansen sent him. Nor does he engage Hansen's arguments. He just says Keystone opposition is "boneheaded."
Like it or not, fossil fuels are going to remain the world's dominant energy source for the foreseeable future, and we are far better off getting our oil from Canada than, say, Venezuela. And the climate change effects of tar sands oil are, all in all, pretty small.
That's really it -- you can go back to the previoustwo columns and you won't find much more.
The basic idea is that, as long as there's demand for fossil fuels, there's going to be supply, so we might as well get the good oil from Canada (even though it's dirtier) than the bad oil from Venezuela. Neither Nocera nor the dozens of other Very Serious People who repeat this argument explain why Venezuelan oil is worse for us than Canadian oil, despite its lower carbon footprint. Perhaps it has Chavez cooties in it? Fans of basic economics will recall that oil is a fungible commodity sold on a world market; if Venezuela does something extra-socialist that raises the price of oil, we'll be paying more, even if the oil we're burning comes from Alberta. The whole construct of "independence" from "foreign oil" (oddly, we don't count Canada as foreign any more) is goofy. But like Joe Scarborough with the deficit, Nocera knows it's a problem because, well, everybody knows it's a problem.
We’ve heard it 38,942,038,417 times* before: The system we use to produce meat in the U.S. is really eff-ed up. Feedlots = horror movies, all this carnivory is making us fat, and to make matters worse, meat consumption contributes to climate change. Right, all good arguments for eating less meat.
What we rarely hear is a fair, honest conversation with the actual farmers raising the animals that produce the meat that most of America consumes. That’s what Graham Meriwether wanted to do with his documentary, American Meat. The film explores meat production from the farmer’s perspective -- and not just those who do it the free-range, organic, grass-fed way.
Meriwether initially set out to make a movie just about the alternative farms springing up across the country. He started off by talking to Joel Salatin of Polyface Farm, made famous by Michael Pollan’s book The Omnivore’s Dilemma. But when he started using stock footage of slaughterhouses, something didn’t feel right.
“I think the most important decision we made in the production of the film was not to put any hidden camera footage in the film,” Meriwether says, “because then that set us off on a journey where we got to talk to [conventional farmers], the people that, for the most part, feed most of our country.”
In the end, he was able to get his own footage of what goes on inside a slaughterhouse, but he chose not to include it in the film. We’ve become so distanced from the reality of where our meat comes from, he says, that we just aren’t ready for it.