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From Amiri to Zora: What these mountain-moving black writers can teach us about climate justice

Amiri Baraka.

Yesterday, the great poet, playwright, and American prophet Amiri Baraka passed away after weeks of illness. I remember discovering his work as a freshman at the University of Pittsburgh, notably his 1968 poem “It’s Nation Time,” which Baraka’s friend, and my mentor, Rob Penny (rest in peace) taught in his class “Black Consciousness.” My friends in that class, many of whom were of the more, er, “radical” variety, were drawn to the line in that poem, “when the brothers take over the school,” especially when we learned that our instructor Penny was part of a Baraka-inspired movement of black students who did exactly that.

On Jan. 15, 1969, they took over the university's central computer room -- nonviolently but forcefully -- at the top of its towering Cathedral of Learning. There, they locked themselves inside and demanded that the university hire more black professors, recruit more black students, and create an academic department for the study of people across the African diaspora.

Before that takeover, black Pitt students were told that there wasn’t room for all they asked for. So Penny and his colleagues had to make their own room, achieving justice through civil disobedience. It was Nation Time.

Most of their demands were granted and Penny became a professor in what would eventually be called Pitt’s “Africana Studies” department, teaching African American literature and theater. He and his close friend Vernell Lillie, both magnificent playwrights, introduced students like me to Baraka’s seminal play “The Dutchman,” and a whole catalogue of other black writers that my friends and I hadn’t yet discovered. Among them was Zora Neale Hurston, the black writer and anthropologist who wrote one of the great American novels, Their Eyes Were Watching God. She would have been 123 years old on Jan. 7, this week.

It is because of Baraka, Hurston, and Rob Penny that I had the audacity to ever pick up a pen or strum a keyboard to share any words with the world. Everything I learned from those writers informs how I cover environmental justice here at Grist.


A poison aficionado’s guide to 6 killer chemicals

Antifreeze is a favorite of today's poisoners, because of its sweet taste.
Steve and Sarah Emry
Antifreeze is a favorite of today's poisoners, because of its sweet taste.

This episode of Inquiring Mindsa podcast hosted by best-selling author Chris Mooney and neuroscientist and musician Indre Viskontas, also features an interview with Quartz meteorology writer Eric Holthaus about whether global warming may be producing more extreme cold weather in the mid-latitudes, just like what much of America experienced this week.

To catch future shows right when they are released, subscribe to Inquiring Minds via iTunes or RSS. You can also follow the show on Twitter at @inquiringshow and like us on Facebook. Inquiring Minds was also recently singled out as one of the "Best of 2013" shows on iTunes -- you can learn more here.

As a writer, Deborah Blum says she has a "love of evil chemistry." It seems that audiences do too: Her latest book, The Poisoner's HandbookMurder and the Birth of Forensic Medicine in Jazz Age New York, was not only a bestseller, but was just turned into a film by PBS (you can watch it for free here).

The book tells the story of Charles Norris, New York City's first medical examiner, and Alexander Gettler, his toxicologist and forensic chemist. They were a scientific and medical duo who brought real evidence and reliable forensic techniques to the pressing task of apprehending poisoners, who were running rampant at the time because there was no science capable of catching them. "When Norris came to office in 1918, the same year, the city of New York actually published a report saying that poisoners could operate with impunity in New York City," explains Blum on the latest episode of the Inquiring Minds podcast [stream below].


Maine’s governor signs GMO-labeling law

Paul LePage

Maine on Thursday became the second state in the nation to require food manufacturers to put labels on products containing genetically modified ingredients -- sort of.

Gov. Paul LePage (R) signed "An Act To Protect Maine Food Consumers' Right To Know about Genetically Engineered Food," which mandates the following:

any food or seed stock offered for retail sale that is genetically engineered must be accompanied by a conspicuous disclosure that states "Produced with Genetic Engineering."

The law would also prevent any products containing GMOs from being labeled as "natural." That should seem obvious, but big food manufacturers are currently pressuring the federal government to allow them to use such labels on genetically modified foods.


This bag saves energy by letting food slow-cook in its own steam

Fumi Yamazaki

This fat, tomato-looking bag is a slow cooker -- a slow cooker that you don't have to plug into the wall. Instead, it works on the same principle as wrapping a towel around a pot -- the bag insulates the pot, which keeps steaming under its own heat for hours. It was invented by a woman named Sarah Collins, and it's called the Wonderbag, but don’t worry, it’s OK anyway.

Here's how it works. You just boil something for a bit, then stick it in the bag -- make sure it's not too, too hot (like, Wonderbag-burning hot) first. Leave it in the bag for hours; come back to delicious food.

Skeptical? One Wonderbag user reports on her experience making vegetable stock:

I followed my usual method ... but once the pot had come to a rolling boil for five minutes, I turned off the heat and transferred the sealed pot to the Wonderbag and left it on my kitchen counter. I'll admit to experiencing a healthy amount of skepticism: to me, a simmering pot is the sign of something that will taste good. But, after four hours, I opened up my Wonderbag to reveal a rich, flavorful stock, that was about twice the volume it would have been if it simmered away on the stove all day (because the Wonderbag conducts a sealed, insulated heat, there is little to no evaporation).

Read more: Food, Living


EPA will let frackers keep on dumping chemicals into the sea

Santa Barbara Beach
Chuck Rogers
Fracking chemicals are out there.

Companies that frack the seafloor off the coast of Southern California have some new federal rules to worry about. Unfortunately, the new rules will still allow their fracking fluids to be unleashed into the sea -- including chemicals that are known to stunt human development and hurt wildlife. The companies will just have to tell the government what they're unleashing.

Under new rules that will take effect March 1, the companies must report the "chemical formulation, concentrations and discharge volumes" to the EPA of any "chemicals used to formulate well treatment, completion and workover fluids" that end up in the ocean.

So, hey, at least we'll know more about fracking pollution. (Assuming, that is, that the frackers are honest.)


Coal chemical spills in West Virginia, leaving 300,000 without tap water


What has Freedom Industries, a major supplier of chemicals to coal companies, done for the cause of freedom lately? It liberated thousands of gallons of a toxic chemical in Charleston, W.Va., poisoning drinking water for some 300,000 people and triggering state and federal emergencies. The Charleston Daily Mail has the appalling details:

Read more: Climate & Energy


The week in GIFs: Beef, bees, and vodka

Welcome to 2014. McDonald's is shifting -- really slowly -- to sustainable beef: Tumblr The White House gave climate deniers a smackdown! Tumblr The first bookless, all-digital public library opened. Tumblr Bee theft is on the rise in the U.K. Apparently everyone wants bees! Canada's no more interested in fixing the climate than the U.S. is. Tumblr A company is making vodka out of melted icebergs: Tumblr

Read more: Living


Leslie Hall is our favorite vegan superstar


Jay-Z went vegan for three weeks? PFFFT. Leslie Hall is totally vegan and 1,000 PERCENT AWESOME. Hall got internet-famous in 2000 for her massive gem sweater collection and then turned into a legit Iowa-based comedic hip-hop star. When she’s not singing about crafting, her cat (the No. 1 cat in America), or her skintight gold jumpsuit, she slips in references to being a vegan. “I was a vegetarian for YEARS UPON YEARS and decided vegan had more of a social impact, which is my reasonings,” she told Grist in an email. Like we needed a reason to worship her any more!

She manages to sneak in nods to veganism and public transit in a hilarious, non-preachy way: “My hair is wavy, smooth like veggie gravy,” she sings on "Hydrate Jirate." On "Power Cuddle," she promises, “I’ll be your black bean burger.” And on "No Pants Policy," she raps, “I’m takin’ public transportation, takin’ lady vitamins” -- oh, just watch it; you’ll love it!

Read more: Food, Living


Feather in his cap-and-trade: Brown pledges polluter fees to poor communities

Jerry Brown Oakland rally
Steve Rhodes

While free-market environmentalists push cap-and-trade systems as a panacea for climate change worries, many in the environmental justice community have yet to buy into it. Their reasons for this vary, but one major concern is that there’s little guarantee that overburdened communities won’t still catch the brunt of industrial pollution. What stops billionaire companies like ExxonMobil from continuing to pollute poor communities if, rather than rein in their emissions under the established cap, they can simply purchase more permits to pollute?

When California started its cap-and-trade system in late 2011, lawmakers addressed these concerns by requiring 25 percent of all revenue from permit auctions to go toward programs that help disadvantaged communities. Also, 10 percent of the revenue would have to be spent directly in those communities. But last year, when the auction dividends started rolling in, Gov. Jerry Brown reneged on that deal, putting $500 million from the permit auction profits into the state’s rainy day fund.

This obviously didn’t endear many environmental justice activists to the cap-and-trade dream.

The governor is on the path to redemption, though. When he unveiled his budget Thursday, it included plans to not only pay back $100 million of what he “borrowed” from cap-and-trade fees, but also a pledge to make some much needed investments in low-income communities across the state.


Elsipogtog epic: How a tribe’s fight against an energy company caught fire

Laura Brown

It is a truth universally acknowledged that a grassroots movement rarely catches the attention of the media until a car is on fire.

There were several cars on fire on Oct. 17, 2013, and for a few days the world was interested in what was happening in a remote part of New Brunswick. Media attention moved on, as it does, but the story it left behind is worth revisiting.

Partly, it's just a great tale -- of how a small First Nations tribe allied with locals and faraway sympathizers to throw a major wrench into a big energy company's plans to explore for natural gas. Beyond that, it's also representative of a host of new regional battles over pipelines, rail networks, and refineries across the U.S. and Canada. They're being fought by small bands of people who, in may cases, do not even consider themselves environmentalists. Together, they have large implications for global energy markets and climate change.