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How BP turned a whole community into an endangered species

oystermen on boat
Shawn Escoffery
Oystermen of Plaquemines Parish, La.

Whether you live in Seattle, Baltimore, or Schenectady, N.Y., if you’ve had an oyster dish, chances are the shelled delicacies came from the Gulf of Mexico, most likely off the Louisiana coast, which produces a third of the nation’s oysters. Crabs? Hate to break it to you, but those luscious “Baltimore” crab cakes -- yep, those are from Louisiana too.

This has been a fact for a long time, but it might soon become an artifact. The reason: the BP oil spill disaster of 2010, which dumped over 205 million gallons of oil and another 2 million gallons of possibly toxic dispersants into the Gulf, devastating the area that’s responsible for 40 percent of the seafood sold commercially across the U.S. For the end user, this just means Maryland chefs actually using Maryland crabs again. But on the supply side, this means that whole communities of fishers along the Gulf Coast have been put out of business, their livelihoods ruined.

Oystermen have fared among the worst in that bunch, notably the African-American oystermen who live and work in Plaquemines Parish, on the lowest end tip of Louisiana. They used to harvest a great deal of the shellfish that eventually adorned our restaurant plates, but the impacts of the BP disaster have proven too difficult to rebound from. They’re now facing “zero population” of oysters, as one seafood distributor put it.

For too long, these black oystermen have been invisible not only to the nation they serve but also to the state they live in. The new documentary Vanishing Pearls from first-time filmmaker Nailah Jefferson hopes to raise the oystermen’s visibility and also our awareness of their value in our national economy and environment.

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Chris Christie is still trying to force a pipeline through the New Jersey Pinelands

Chris Christie
Gage Skidmore

In January, on the heels of the embarrassing revelation that New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie’s (R) staffers created a traffic jam on the George Washington Bridge to punish an obscure political rival, Christie and his allies were handed a defeat. The New Jersey Pinelands Commission rejected a proposed 22-mile natural-gas pipeline that would go through a national reserve of forests and wetlands. Though Christie went so far as to bully a commissioner who was skeptical of the pipeline into recusing himself from the decision, that wasn't enough to secure approval.

But now the pipeline is back. The state’s leading power brokers want the commission to reconsider and are pressuring commissioners to change their votes, working both behind the scenes and through public statements and symbolic votes in county and town legislative bodies. The Philadelphia Inquirer recently reported, “A growing number of elected officials from Gov. Christie to lawmakers including Senate President Stephen Sweeney (D., Gloucester) have joined county freeholders and township officials in support of the project. They are considering ways of returning the issue to the Pinelands Commission, possibly as a ‘compelling public need’ for energy security and scores of jobs.”

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People of color contribute least to smog, yet breathe more of it. WTF?

latina-woman-air-mask-flickr-esparta-palma
Esparta Palma

Get a load of this: It’s not poor people whose nostrils get the dirtiest air. It’s people of color -- even wealthy ones.

It’s true, you can’t 1,000 percent separate race and class, but new findings from the University of Minnesota found that race, more than income, determines who smog hurts the most. Writes ThinkProgress:

When low-income white people were compared to high-income Hispanic people, the latter group experienced higher levels of nitrogen dioxide. Altogether, people of color in the U.S. breathe air with 38 percent more nitrogen dioxide in it than their white counterparts, particularly due to power plants and exhaust from vehicles.

Unfair, especially because people of color produce less air pollution than white people (African-Americans, for example, emit 20 percent less CO2 than white Americans). So why is this happening? You know, other than racism? Writes Atlantic Cities:

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Gnamesakes

Newly discovered gnat species named after Bill McKibben

billmckibben_gnat2
Background photo: Axel Hartmann. Photo illustration: Eve Andrews

If you had the power to name a living creature, would you use that power wisely? Would you name it after one of your heroes? Let’s be real: Beyoncemus knowlesi does have a pretty nice ring to it!

Peter Kerr, a scientist with the California Department of Food and Agriculture’s State Collection of Arthropods, recently discovered a species of gnat. Through a great feat of willpower, he was able to avoid the temptation of christening it Gnat King Cole, Jr. (There’s a reason that Grist staff members aren’t scientists.) Instead, he decided to name it after foremost green activist, author, and Grist board member Bill McKibben, honoring McKibben’s commitment to protecting the health of the planet and all of its forms of life.

The Megophthalmidia mckibbeni makes its home in California. It enjoys fungi, forests, and following 350.org on Twitter. Just kidding about the last one – gnats can’t use smartphones, guys!

We reached out to McKibben to find out how he felt when he learned about his new spirit animal. He was predictably modest:

Read more: Living

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sharing is scarring

Airbnb can make your dreams of running a brothel come true

sex-worker-underwear-money-shutterstock
Shutterstock

Thought you were renting your place so an exhausted sightseer could crash? Oh, she’s definitely sleeping ... with some horndog and his hundos.

In an unexpected result of the sharing economy, Airbnb rooms might be replacing NYC hotels as primo sex worker spots. As one anonymous 21-year-old escort told the New York Post:

It’s more discreet and much cheaper than The Waldorf. Hotels have doormen and cameras. They ask questions. Apartments are usually buzz-in.

Read more: Cities, Living

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menstrual cycles

Screw being ladylike on a bike

woman-female-cyclist-biker-sunset-shutterstock
Shutterstock

Turns out the sexist soap bubble we live in doesn’t pop when you hop on a Surly. If anything, people get MORE judgey: Ladies, you better not get to work sweaty and unpretty! But how dare you ride in a skirt and heels? I half expect some guy with a handlebar mustache to promote riding sidesaddle. (Lest you think we live in a post-gender society, know that women in the U.S. only take 1-in-4 bike trips.)

Former Grist editor Sarah Goodyear reached out to female cyclists, asking what it means to be feminine on two wheels (if there even IS such a thing). Reading the smattering of responses she got over at Atlantic Cities was both reassuring and eye-opening, reinforcing that there’s no one way to be a woman on a bike, just as -- WAIT FOR IT -- there’s no one way to be a human on Planet Earth. (Crazy, I know.) Here are a handful of ruminations on cycling, fashion, and gender (all of which you should read, BTW):

Read more: Cities, Living

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New hurricane maps will show whether your house could drown

hurricane-flash-flood.jpg
Gina Jacobs / Shutterstock

The federal government will begin making its hurricane warning maps more colorful this summer, adding a range of hues to represent the danger of looming floods.

Red, orange, yellow, and blue will mark coastal and near-coastal areas where storm surges are anticipated during a hurricane. The different colors will be used to show the anticipated depth of approaching flash floods.

Severe flooding that followed Superstorm Sandy helped prompt the change -- NOAA says it had a hard time convincing Manhattanites that they faced any real danger from such floods.

Read more: Climate & Energy

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No more mystery food

Vermont poised to mandate GMO labels on food

Vermont store
Stacy Brunner

Vermont is on the verge of becoming the third American state to require the labeling of foods that contain genetically modified ingredients.

State senators approved a GMO-labeling bill on Tuesday with a 28-2 vote, sending it back to the House, which approved an earlier version with a 99-42 vote last year. Gov. Peter Shumlin (D) has said he's likely to sign it.

The bill would require the words “partially produced with genetic engineering” to be stamped on packages of GMO-containing food sold in Vermont. The lists of ingredients would also need to specify which items contain GMOs. It would be illegal to market such foods as  “natural,” “naturally made,” or “naturally grown."

Connecticut and Maine have both recently passed similar laws -- but those laws will only take effect if enough other states do likewise. The two states don't want to face the inevitable lawsuits from Big Food on their own.

Vermont is the first state willing to go it alone. Its bill would take effect in July 2016. State lawmakers say they crafted the language of the bill carefully, hoping it could survive court challenges.

Read more: Food, Politics

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Ask Umbra: How do I know if my local swimming hole is safe?

snorkel kids
Shutterstock

Send your question to Umbra!

Q. Summer is coming, so I wonder if the river near my house (the famous Kamogawa) is safe for my kids to splash in. There is a garbage incinerator upstream, though not directly on the river, and the operators *swear* it does not leak. Is there a water testing kit? What kinds of things would I want to test for? And what kinds of safety limits would I want to look for? It does not have to be drinking-water quality, just safe enough to stick their little feet and hands in.

Gabi
Kyoto, Japan

A. Dearest Gabi,

You’ve just officially made it Water Week here at Ask Umbra. On Monday, we waded into what kind of substances we can safely put in the water; today, let’s address whether or not we can put ourselves in as well.

I hope you’ll forgive me for answering your question broadly. I don’t know how clean the Kamogawa is, nor will my expense account cover phone calls to Japan to check. But I can share some information I hope will be useful to you and anyone else longing for a warm-weather dip in a local waterway.

Read more: Living

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Is climate change the new slavery?

a crowd of poor people
Shutterstock

The latest report from the U.N. Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change is out, with its layers of deadening bureaucratic prose. Climate watchers have had their latest chance to make out, as best they can, what biblical futures await us on a hotter, drier, stormier planet. Two sentences from the report's second installment struck me with the force of a storm surge: “Climate change is projected to progressively increase inter-annual variability of crop yields in many regions. These projected impacts will occur in the context of rapidly rising crop demand.” Translation: We’ll have smaller harvests in the future, less food, and 3 billion more mouths to feed.

The IPCC has done an heroic job of digesting thousands of scientific papers into a bullet-point description of how global warming is shrinking food and water supplies, most drastically for the poorest of Earth’s 7 billion human inhabitants. Being scientists, though, they fail miserably to communicate the gravity of the situation. The IPPC language, at its most vivid, talks of chronic “poverty traps” and “hunger hotspots” as the 21st century unfolds. The report offers not a single graspable image of what our future might actually look like when entire populations of people — not only marginalized sub-groups — face perennial food insecurity and act to save themselves. What decisions do human communities make en masse in the face of total environmental collapse? There are no scientific papers to tell us this, so we must look to history instead for clues to our dystopian future.

The last global climate crisis for which we have substantial historical records began 199 years ago this month, in April 1815, when the eruption of Mt. Tambora in Indonesia cooled the Earth and triggered drastic disruptions of major weather systems worldwide. Extreme volcanic weather — droughts, floods, storms — gripped the globe for three full years after the eruption.

In the Tambora period from 1815 to 1818, the global human community consisted mostly of subsistence farmers, who were critically vulnerable to sustained climate deterioration. The occasional crop failure was part of life, but when relentless bad weather ruined harvests for two and then three years running, extraordinary, world-changing things started to happen. The magnitude and variety of human suffering in the years 1815 to 1818 are in one sense incalculable, but three continental-scale consequences stand out amid the misery: slavery, refugeeism, and the failure of states.

Read more: Climate & Energy