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Drone on

Could drones be our secret weapon in the fight against Big Ag?

factory-cows
Shutterstock

If you were privy to everything that went on inside a factory farm, you might never want to eat again. Manure lagoons fester. Animals cram into tiny spaces. Unsanitary conditions abound. Which is exactly why Big Ag would rather you just didn’t know. At least seven states have now made it illegal to use undercover evidence to expose the unsavory practices that take place on factory farms. Award-winning journalist Will Potter thinks drones could be the workaround to these controversial “ag-gag” laws.

NPR reports that Potter raised $75,000 on Kickstarter to buy drones and other equipment in order to investigate animal agriculture in the U.S.

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Planes talk

Disney’s “Planes” sequel is an excuse to talk to your kids about climate change

planes-sn.jpg
Disney

I saw the Disney film Planes: Fire and Rescue over the weekend with my 11-year-old son Justice. It’s not my favorite animated movie series, but I thought it would be a calmer, more ambient version of the kind of anthropomorphized stories Justice and I have sat earmuffed through at the movies lately, like Transformers and Planet of the Apes.

I’m not mad we went. It did a better job of explaining the inconsolable wrath of wildfires for us two East Coasters than I could have ever done for my son. And it managed to pack in a subplot about water scarcity.

Read more: Climate & Energy, Living

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These amazing animated maps show cities on the move

It knows when you are sleeping. It knows when you're awake. It knows if you've been driving, biking, or walking, and it records it, for data's sake.

Human is an app that tracks activity with the goal of getting users to exercise at least 30 minutes a day. It uses the M7 motion co-processor, a handy little iPhone microchip with gyroscope, compass, and accelerometer sensors, to track and record your every move -- even while your phone is asleep.

Creepy? Maybe a little. But what with the NSA so busy looking at pictures of you in your underwear, maybe a device that tracks how you get around on a daily basis isn't all that bad.

This month, Human's parent company released a series of neat-o visualizations of walking, biking, running, and driving patterns for 30 cities around the world. Check out the video here:

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Ask Umbra: What should I do with my nasty old pillows?

pillowdog
Shutterstock

Send your question to Umbra!

Q. My pillows are getting gross. I've thought about washing them, but I can only do two at a time in the washing machine, and I live in Southern California where we're in the midst of a nasty drought. So, I've thought about throwing them away and getting new ones, but I hate the thought of them just sitting in a landfill. Which path to clean pillows is better for the planet? And if you have any recommendations for eco-friendlier pillows in general, I'll take 'em!

Amy
Glendale, Calif.

A. Dearest Amy,

While I admire your commitment to water conservation, there’s no need to force your pillows into early retirement. Just as you wouldn’t toss your clothes, dishes, or bedsheets after getting a bit grimy (I hope), nor should you contribute to overconsumerism with a new set of pillows, which require raw materials, water, and energy to produce – and that you don’t really need.

Read more: Living

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Fracking fight headed for the ballot in Colorado

fist fight
Shutterstock

Colorado voters will likely get a chance to weigh in on fracking in November -- and that puts Democrats on the ballot in a tight spot.

The fracking boom has bolstered Colorado's economy, and twisted its politics. Even many Democrats advocate for oil and gas interests, including Gov. John Hickenlooper and Sen. Mark Udall, both of whom are up for reelection this year. But many people living near the wells complain of contaminated air and water, noise, health problems, and other adverse effects.

As Colorado cities have begun trying to ban fracking, the state government has sued them, arguing that only the state has that authority. Rep. Jared Polis (D), whose congressional district includes many of those communities north of Denver, is spending his own money to promote a ballot initiative to outlaw fracking less than 2,000 feet from a residence, up from the currently allowed 500 feet. The gas industry says that would amount to a fracking ban in many areas. Polis is also supporting an initiative that would make more stringent local environmental regulations override conflicting weaker state rules, which could allow communities to outlaw fracking.

Hickenlooper and other state lawmakers were trying to broker a legislative compromise that would keep the initiatives off the ballot. The governor's proposal would have placed some additional restrictions on fracking but made it clear that localities couldn’t ban it altogether. But last week, the negotiations fell apart and Hickenlooper announced that there would be no special summer legislative session to pass a fracking bill. Polis then declared that he will move forward with collecting the signatures needed to place his proposals on the ballot.

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Let them drink olive oil

California’s next oil rush might be surprisingly delicious

olives
Gabriele Tudico

Olives trees have a lot to offer the United States. One of those things is water -- and this year, as California dries to a shriveled crisp, water is looking especially important.

Most olives grown around the world have no irrigation. The trees are built for drought: They have narrow, waxy, abstemious leaves. They’ve evolved biological tricks for going dormant when things get too dry; they hunker down and then spring back when the rains come. These skills are appealing to farmers, especially ones who have recently ripped out a drought-ravaged orchard, thereby walking away from a 20-year investment.

It’s nearly impossible to say whether California’s drought is linked to climate change. Current models suggest that the state could actually get a little wetter, but they also suggest hotter summers and greater extremes. When the droughts do come, they are going to be serious.

One projection is clear: There are going to be a lot more people sticking their straws into the communal cup. So, right about now, this tree that’s adapted for California’s Mediterranean climate, survives without irrigation, and produces food at the same time seems pretty cool.

Read more: Climate & Energy, Food

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Listen up, EPA!

Feds move to restrict neonic pesticides — well, one fed at least

Kealia Pond National Wildlife Refuge
Byron Chin

So far the EPA has refused to ban use of neonicotinoid insecticides -- despite mounting evidence that they kill bees and other wildlife, despite a ban in the European Union, despite a lawsuit filed by activists and beekeepers.

But if the EPA is somehow still unclear on the dangers posed by neonics, it need only talk to the official who oversees federal wildlife refuges in the Pacific Northwest and Pacific Ocean.

Kevin Foerster, a regional boss with the National Wildlife Refuge System, directed his staff this month to investigate where neonics are being used in the refuges they manage -- and to put an end to their use. Foerster’s office is worried that farming contractors that grow grasses and other forage crops for wildlife and corn and other grains for human consumption on refuge lands are using neonic pesticides and neonic-treated seeds. There are also fears that agency staff are inadvertently using plants treated with the poisons in restoration projects.

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Cargolicious

Whole Foods will bring you groceries by bike

peoples-cargo

OK, I'll admit right off the bat that I wasn't so excited when my editors suggested I write about Whole Foods making deliveries by bike. Now affluent people who can't be bothered to pick up their own groceries can have a slightly lower carbon impact -- I mean, where's the champagne!

But after I sat with this for a second, I decided there is reason to celebrate. Cargo-bike deliveries make a lot of sense for companies, even if they don't care about the environment: They don't get hung up in traffic, they don't require parking spaces, they don't guzzle fuel, they're cheaper than delivery vans, they are easy to repair ... The list could go on. But they are still pretty rare because, basically, change is hard.

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Washington state just lopped up to $2,500 off the cost of solar panels. Here’s how.

solar panel rainbow
Steve Jurvetson

All new technology, no matter how innovative, arrives in a world of pre-existing laws and regulations. But not all technology catches the same breaks. A company like Lyft or Uber can do its thing right out there in the open for a surprisingly long time, despite being -- essentially -- appified versions of such already-illegal innovations as dollar vans and jitneys.

By comparison, solar energy, despite having made leaps and bounds both technologically and finance-wise, can't show up at the block party without bringing down a lawsuit, a law, or some kind of extra fee.

Yet those impediments, intentional and unintentional, are beginning to remove themselves. A decision this week by the Building Code Council in Washington state is a prime example.

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school of hot

Florida Gov. Rick Scott is about to sweat through some climate education

rick-scott
MrX

During the 2010 gubernatorial campaign, when Rick Scott was asked if he believed in climate change, his response was, “I have not been convinced.” Since then, he has evolved from denier to evader, and his current position stands at, “I am not a scientist.”

Luckily for Scott, Florida is full of scientists, and they are happy to pitch in and explain the big words. Ten of them, led by Professor Jeff Chanton, an oceanographer with Florida State University, delivered a letter to the governor’s office this week. “We are scientists," they wrote. "And we would like the opportunity to explain what is at stake for our state.”

Turns out the evidence for climate change is so clear and straightforward anyone, even a Republican governor, can understand it. “It’s not rocket science,” Chanton told Mary Ellen Klas at the Tampa Bay Times, “I can explain it. Give me half an hour.”