"Fracking": It sounds more like a comic-book exclamation (kapow! boom! frack!) than a controversial method for extracting natural gas and oil from rock deep underground. By turns demonized as a catastrophic environmental threat and glorified as a therapy for our foreign oil addiction, fracking has become a flashpoint in our national energy policy.
Scientists assure us that fracking can be done safely -- at least in theory. They are still working to understand the long-term implications of using this technology at large scale in the real world, however, where things spill, accidents happen, and people have their health, homes, schools, airports, groundwater, and even cemeteries to worry about.
We know scientists aren't the only ones looking for answers. So below, we tackle six key questions about fracking.
Food-justice organization Growing Power -- with its now-iconic greenhouses, composting worms, fishponds, and multiple generations of graduates -- is well-known as a model worth replicating. Now, Growing Power has announced a bountiful $5 million grant from the W.K. Kellogg Foundation to fund “community food centers” aimed at relieving hunger in five of the nation’s poorest areas.
Modeled on Growing Power’s Milwaukee farm-headquarters, the centers will be located in Detroit; New Orleans; Forest City, Ark.; Shelby, Miss.; and Taos, N.M.
“It’s all wrapped around providing healthy, sustainable, local food to folks, especially our youth,” explains Will Allen, founder and director of Growing Power. “Many of the young people in those communities go to bed hungry every night.”
Here's one thing Barack Obama and Mitt Romney have in common: They don't have to battle for attention with a squad of dancing jellyfish puppets. Jill Stein did, and won. The Green Party presidential candidate spent yesterday morning in Manhattan's Financial District with the environmental contingent of Occupy Wall Street, dodging cops, patiently waiting out street theater performances, and shouting hoarsely into the People's Mic.
"Wall Street has put our climate in crisis," Stein yelled, to an ample wiggling of spirit fingers. "It's up to us to lead the way on the economy and the climate."
Occupy Wall Street has long eschewed party politics, which makes the appearance of this long-shot presidential contender slightly discordant. But to see Stein, for whom environmental issues are a campaign centerpiece, marks an apex in what Occupy's environmental organizers call a yearlong struggle to bring climate change to the forefront of the movement.
Stein, 62, is a Harvard-educated physician who first entered politics 10 years ago as a Green-Rainbow Party candidate for Massachusetts governor, after years of public health activism. Despite her greatest electoral success being a seat on the Lexington, Mass., Town Meeting in 2005 and 2008, Stein will go head to head with Obama and Romney in at least 38 states this November, making her a contender for the votes of environmentally conscious Occupiers nationwide who are dissatisfied with both mainstream parties' mollifying of the fossil fuel industry.
Stein isn't naïve about her chances for the White House. But she's running anyway, because in her mind both parties are tarred by the same brush.
At first blush, Alison Gannett’s sacrifices in the name of fighting global climate change don’t seem all that sacrificial. In 2001, the world champion extreme freeskier gave up helicopter skiing. She sold her snowmobile in 2005. Several years ago, she rejected a lucrative contract with Crocs because of the shoe company’s questionable environmental practices. (She kept her contract with the more sustainable Keen Footwear.) Just recently she turned down a photo shoot in the Alps because the flight over the pond was too much for her carbon footprint to bear.
Go ahead, roll your eyes. (Oh muffin … no heliskiing??) Then take note: Gannett walks the walk when it comes to living green. She and her husband grow their own food on an earth-friendly farm, and she's battled to bring sustainable eats to residents in her rural corner of Colorado. Gannett has also leveraged her personal experience into a business that helps individuals and corporations -- including a few of her athletic sponsors -- reduce their energy consumption by up to 50 percent.
Hers is a story of how a fun hog became a climate activist in order to protect the thing she loves most: winter.
The most extreme climate "alarmists" in U.S. politics are not nearly alarmed enough. The chances of avoiding catastrophic global temperature rise are not nil, exactly, but they are slim-to-nil, according to a new analysis prepared for the U.K. government.
Remember, climate change is simple. We're trying to avoid temperature rise of more than 2 degrees Celsius above pre-industrial levels, because anything over that risks severe, irreversible, and overwhelmingly negative impacts. Currently we're around 0.8 degrees above historical levels. If current trends continue, we could hit up to 6 degrees by 2100. That would likely exceed our ability to adapt, which is a polite way of saying it would lead to massive human die-off. That, in a nutshell, is (as I like to say) the brutal logic of climate change.
The group modeled a range of temperature targets between 1.5 and 3.0 degrees. For a given target, the group attempted to produce a systematic assessment of all the possible pathways to achieving it. Pretty ambitious, no?
It’s a haunting remake of a 50-year-old tale: The Green Slime that Coated the Midwest. And this rehashed horror story is no work of fiction.
Like the classic film they may have inspired, the toxic blooms of blue-green algae that coated and stunk up the Great Lakes from the 1950s to the 1970s have returned to the region with a vengeance.
The blooms of decades past were fueled largely by decrepit sewage systems that spewed nutrient-rich human waste into the world’s largest body of fresh surface water. The modern remake, by contrast, is the handiwork of corporate agriculture.
Heavy rainfall in the farming region last spring and summer washed vast volumes of agricultural pollution into rivers and lakes, where it fueled poisonous blooms that sickened and disgusted residents and tourists and killed family pets.
Midwesterners describe some of last year’s blooms, particularly those in Lake Erie, as the worst in recent memory. And this year -- despite much less rainfall washing into the lakes -- is shaping up to be nearly as bad.
Lately I’ve begun to wonder about those stand-up-by-themselves, foam rubber bras that we women seem to have become addicted to because they provide some modesty (or much needed augmentation) for our spandex blend clothes. Is this stuff (said bras and our spandex-laden wardrobes) going to sit around un-degraded in landfills until after the Second Coming, or is it breaking down into substances that will turn as yet unborn children into 10-toed salamanders?
Should we be just saying no to the fashion industry?
Purrl Gurrl Seattle, Wash.
A. Dearest Purrl,
We should always say no to the mainstream fashion industry, shouldn’t we? It doesn't have our ecological or economic interests at heart.
James Gustave Speth, who goes by "Gus" and speaks with a soft South Carolina drawl, is nobody's picture of a radical. His resume is as mainstream and establishment as it gets: environmental advisor to Presidents Carter and Clinton, founder of the Natural Resources Defense Council and World Resources Institute, administrator of the U.N. Development Program, dean of the Yale School of Forestry and Environmental Studies, now a professor at Vermont Law School, and distinguished senior fellow at Demos. Time magazine has called him the "ultimate insider."
And yet this elder environmental statesman, author of the acclaimed books Red Sky at Morning (2003) and The Bridge at the Edge of the World (2008), has grown ever more convinced that our politics and our economy are so corrupted, and the environmental movement so inadequate, that we can no longer hope to address the climate crisis, or our deep social ills, by working strictly within the system. The only remaining option, he argues in his forceful new book, America the Possible: Manifesto for a New Economy, is to change the system itself. And that, he knows full well, will require a real struggle for the direction and soul of the country.
"My motivation," he writes, "was climate change: After more than 30 years of unsuccessfully advocating for government action to protect our planet's climate, I found myself at the end of my proverbial rope. Civil disobedience was my way of saying that America's economic and political system had failed us all."
Invoking the moral legacy of the civil rights movement, this uber-environmentalist has now written a book not about climate and the environment (though the climate crisis looms large in its pages), but about America, the path we're on, and the path we could be on -- to a far better and safer future -- if enough of us are willing to fight for it.
Parts of this book are, frankly, tough to read. In the opening section, Speth looks unflinchingly, even matter-of-factly, into the abyss, spelling out just how deep the hole is that we're in -- not only environmentally but socially and economically, from rising poverty and inequality, to declining education and public health, to massive Pentagon budgets, out-of-control campaign spending, and, yes, outsized carbon emissions.
But Speth doesn't stop there. He goes on to paint a remarkably positive vision (some will call it utopian) of an America that, he argues, is still -- despite everything -- within our grasp.
At the heart of Speth's vision, then, is a "sustaining, post-growth economy." And yet it will never be more than a vision, he argues, without a transformative progressive movement for far-reaching democratic reforms (starting, perhaps, by rolling back Citizens United) coupled with urgent action to prevent catastrophic climate disruption in the decades ahead.
It's a tall order. But Speth sketches -- in the book and the interview here -- what he argues is a plausible scenario, one he believes we can already see starting to play out. If it sounds merely wishful to you, it seems only fair to ask, at a time like this, whether you have a better plan -- and whether you believe business as usual is really an option.
I spoke with Speth by phone on Friday, Sept. 7, the morning after President Obama's acceptance speech at the Democratic National Convention. The transcript has been edited for length and clarity.
I learned about energy efficiency in a very painful and embarrassing way. Many years ago, I entered the famous Western States 100-Mile Endurance Run, which follows tortuous old gold-miners’ trails over the Sierra Nevada Mountains. I had calculated that I’d burn about 130 calories per mile, which meant I’d need about 13,000 calories to get through that run. So, I planned to consume about 80 PowerBars along the way. The first few hours went easily enough, but by the time I reached a major aid station at 54 miles, I was deathly sick and severely dehydrated -- yet could no longer stand the sight of either food or water. How on earth were the other runners able to keep going? Only later did I learn that evolution has created a kind of bodily ecology that with training enables very small amounts of carbohydrate to interact with small amounts of fat to generate a far more efficient propulsion than I’d thought possible. Energy efficiency, it turned out, was a far bigger factor than energy supply in determining a man or woman’s ability to run over rough terrain all day and all night.
As I later discovered, in my work as an editor at the Worldwatch Institute, the mistake I’d made as an individual in my abortive 100-mile effort was almost identical to a mistake the United States had made as a nation. It began with a widespread misunderstanding of what energy efficiency really is. A salesman for gas-fired hot-water heaters, for example, might tell a customer his product has 85-percent efficiency because only 15 percent of the heat is lost “up the stack,” and therefore 85 percent is going into the water. But a physicist would point out that the gas flame is much, much hotter than the water coming out, so a lot of the work that could have been done by that flame has been wasted. In other words, it’s the work output or loss, not energy output or loss, that should be measured. According to the first law of thermodynamics, energy itself can’t be used up or lost.
In 1972, a government consultant, using the same unscientific logic as the water-heater salesman, presented a report to the U.S. Congress asserting that the country as a whole was using energy at a rate of 50-percent efficiency, which he assured the politicians was so high that no further gains from efficiency could be relied on and therefore the country would need to build hundreds of new nuclear power plants by the end of the 20th century. It was the same kind of thinking that had led me to think I’d need lots and lots of PowerBars.