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Gristmill: Fresh, whole-brain news.


Obama administration gives wind industry a pass for killing birds

A California condor -- is it expendable?
Shutterstock / George Lamson
A California condor -- is it expendable?

Is it OK to slaughter hundreds of thousands of birds every year in the name of clean energy? Is it OK for a luxury home developer to kill California condors in its quest for profits?

The Obama administration seems to think so. It is flexing little to none of the legal muscle needed to encourage wind energy companies to avoid killing eagles, hawks, and other birds that can be fatally drawn into their spinning turbines.

An Associated Press investigation revealed that the administration has never fined or prosecuted a wind farm for killing a bird. Many of the avian victims of the fast-growing wind sector are protected under the Migratory Bird Treaty Act, and some are protected by the Bald and Golden Eagle Protection Act.

An estimated 573,000 birds were killed last year in the U.S. by wind turbines, the AP reported, citing a study published in March in the journal Wildlife Society Bulletin. About 83,000 of those were estimated to have been raptors.


Kids these days just don’t care about cars

I refuse to conform to your car culture.
I refuse to conform to your car culture.

At Grist, we’ve been onto the trend of the youngs losing interest in driving for awhile now. And every time a new study or survey comes out to statistically corroborate the anecdotal evidence we see every day, we hear the same responses from skeptics -- it’s just the economy, just a stage of life. Wait til those millennials get real jobs, get married, have families, and move to the suburbs. Then you bet they’ll start driving.

But the latest report on declining driving trends -- released today by the U.S. PIRG Education Fund -- argues that a rejection of car culture is here to stay. “The Driving Boom is over,” it declares. In fact, the report calculates that “If the Millennial-led decline in per-capita driving continues for another dozen years … total vehicle travel in the United States could remain well below its 2007 peak through at least 2040 -- despite a 21 percent increase in population.”

The U.S. PIRG study reveals how, after six decades of steady growth, both total vehicle miles traveled (VMT) and VMT per capita have been falling since 2007. Total VMT is now at 2004 levels, while VMT per capita has fallen to 1996 levels. And once again, it’s those meddling millennials who are reimagining one of the pillars of American culture. Young people ages 16 to 34 drove an average of 23 percent fewer miles in 2009 than they did in 2001, according to the report. If you consider that more than half the people in that age group were old enough to drive in 2001, too, that suggests that even as those at the older end of this generation enter their 30s -- presumably settling into more stable jobs and in some cases starting families -- they’re still not switching over to a car-centric lifestyle at the same rate as generations before them.

Economic factors -- high gas prices, the recession -- obviously motivate people of all ages to drive less. But, as we’ve pointed out before, larger societal shifts lie behind millennials’ generation-wide “meh” attitude toward car ownership. Brian Merchant at Vice summarizes them in two words: Facebook and Brooklyn.

Read more: Cities, Living


Coal plants could be linked to thousands of North Carolina suicides

Duke Energy may be driving its neighbors to kill themselves when it burns coal at Belews Creek Steam Station in Stokes County, N.C.
Duke Energy
A Duke Energy coal plant bleching pollution in Stokes County, N.C.

North Carolina's numerous coal plants might be driving Tar Heel State residents to kill themselves.

Suicide is a leading killer in America, and links between air pollution and suicide rates have been known for years. Breathing in bad air might drive people to take their own lives by worsening their health problems, affecting their nervous systems, or generally lowering their life satisfaction.

So Wake Forest Baptist Medical Center researcher John Spangler set about trying to understand how polluting coal-fired power plants might affect county-by-county suicide rates in North Carolina, where the statewide rate is higher than the national average [PDF]. What he discovered was an alarming correlation.


Occupy the Farm movement rises again, hours after being raided

A tractor was used Monday to destroy the unauthorized farm plantation.
Occupy the Farm
On Monday, this tractor plowed over the unauthorized farm.

A guerrilla veggie-growing occupation of university-owned land in Albany, Calif., was busted by cops early Monday and thousands of zucchini, kale, squash, and other newly planted seedlings were plowed over. But the occupiers proved more resilient than a sprawling mint plant, returning Monday to replant the desecrated farm.

More than 100 activists had gathered at Gill Tract, near Berkeley, on Friday and over the weekend, with some staying on site until the Monday morning raid. They pulled weeds, tilled soil, and planted seedlings. Some pitched tents.

The 12-acre site was part of a large tract of land donated to the University of California in the 1920s and was long used for organic farming and research. But much of it is now abandoned land, slated for homebuilding and a new grocery store. Some of the land continues to be used for agricultural research, but much of that research relates to genetic engineering.

Read more: Food, Living


North Carolina might ban Tesla’s business model

This guy wants to sell you a Tesla.
This guy wants to sell you a Tesla.

North Carolina lawmakers are rushing to protect the state's car dealers from Tesla's subversive direct-to-consumer business model.

Silicon Valley-based Tesla sells its all-electric roadsters and sedans online and over the phone. It seems to be doing a pretty good job of it so far. It doesn't sell its cars on the concrete lots or in the sterile showrooms of car salesmen, who take commissions that hike prices. The company considers dealerships unnecessary.

And that rubs the powerful North Carolina Automobile Dealers Association the wrong way.

The association wants a piece of the Tesla pie, and it's accustomed to getting its way. State law already bars anybody other than a licensed dealer from selling more than four motor vehicles in a year.

The association has backed Senate Bill 327, sponsored by state Sen. Tom Apodaca (R), which would broaden the scope of that protectionist law to also cover internet and telephone sales.


Food-safety push in California hurts wildlife — and doesn’t make food safer

spinach field
Rigid rules for leafy greens are taking a toll on wildlife.

A deadly outbreak of E. coli in 2006, traced to a California spinach field, spurred an overhaul of food-safety regulations in the leafy-greens industry -- and that’s got to be a good thing, right? Not so fast, says a study published last week in the journal Nature. Those regulations have contributed to a major loss of ecosystem diversity in California's Salinas Valley, while at the same time doing little to alleviate the risk of food-borne illness.

In an effort to reduce the potential for contamination, the industry put in place standards that, while technically voluntary, quickly became widespread. Big produce buyers, fearing further disease outbreaks and the public-relations disasters they create, only want to do business with farmers conforming to the new guidelines. “Nationwide, U.S. fruit and vegetable farmers report being pressured by commercial produce buyers to engage in land-use practices that are not conducive to wildlife and habitat conservation, in a scientifically questionable attempt to reduce food-borne illness risk,” the study reports.

Scientific American describes what this ends up looking like:


Pennsylvania’s ag-gag law could protect frackers

film of fracking, being burned
Shutterstock / World Resources
Put that video camera away or else.

Film a fracker, go to jail?

It could become illegal to document many of the fracking operations in Pennsylvania under an ag-gag bill being considered in the state House.

Ag-gag laws have been introduced or passed in more than a dozen states, aiming to prevent animal-welfare activists from documenting systemic abuses at corporate farms and slaughterhouses. They do this in a variety of ways, mostly by making it illegal to film such abuse; by requiring any such footage be handed over immediately to law enforcement officials (thereby hobbling activists' ability to document patterns of abuse, rather than one-off instances); and/or by requiring job applicants to reveal any activist affiliations.

But experts warn that Pennsylvania House Bill 683 would go further by also protecting frackers from unwanted scrutiny when they operate on farmland. A fracking spree is underway in the state, which sits atop the natural-gas-rich Marcellus Shale deposit, and much of the fracking is conducted on agricultural lands.


Vermont House passes GMO-labeling law

Members of the Vermont House think shoppers should be told which products contain GMOs.
Members of the Vermont House think shoppers should be told which products contain GMOs.

A historic but cautious attempt to force food manufacturers to label products containing genetically modified ingredients passed the Vermont House by an overwhelming 107-37 vote last week.

If approved by the state Senate and signed by the governor, the bill, H. 112,  would make Vermont the first state in the nation to require labeling of genetically modified foods.

But the measure likely wouldn’t go into effect for two years, and it would not affect meat, milk, or eggs from animals that were fed or treated with genetically engineered substances, including GMO corn and the rBGH cattle hormone.*

From Vermont Public Radio:


Supreme Court hands a big win to Monsanto on GMO seeds


In a blow to opponents of GMOs and Monsanto, the Supreme Court today ruled unanimously that an Indiana soybean farmer violated the company’s patent by saving its trademark Roundup Ready seeds.

Every time a farmer buys seeds from Monsanto, she or he must sign a contract agreeing not to save seeds from the crop. Monsanto’s many vociferous critics condemn this practice for the way it traps farmers in a costly cycle of dependence on the company’s products. The farmer in this case, Vernon Bowman, signed such an agreement when he originally bought Monsanto’s Roundup Ready soybeans. But he found a clever way to get around the restrictions. Tom Laskawy explains:

For years, Bowman would grow a first crop of Monsanto seed, which he would purchase legally, and then would buy some commodity seed from his local grain elevator for his second crop. While aware he could not save seeds from the first crop he grew, Bowman would later plant the commodity seeds, spray the plants with Roundup, and was then able to identify which were resistant to the herbicide when they didn’t die. Bowman saved those seeds and saved money, since he had bought the commodity seeds for his second crop at a steep discount without paying Monsanto or signing its licensing agreement.

Farmers can sell saved seed to local grain elevators, which often resell the mixed seed packs for animal feed or industrial uses. In buying these so-called commodity seeds from the grain elevator, Bowman rightly assumed, as The Washington Post explains, that “those beans were mostly Roundup Ready — resistant to the weedkiller glyphosate — because that’s what most of his neighbors grow.” Bowman saved and replanted the Roundup Ready seeds from his second crop for eight years before Monsanto caught on and sued.


Lots of people, animals, and plants will be homeless thanks to climate change

homeless sign
The Digital Story

The historic rise of carbon dioxide levels above 400 parts per million in the atmosphere has many people thinking about climate change’s Brobdingnagian impacts. And right on cue, new research indicates that huge numbers of people, animals, and plants can expect to find themselves ejected from their homes because of global warming over the coming years and decades.

An estimated 32.4 million people were forced to flee their homes last year because of disasters such as floods and storms, according to a new report released by the Internal Displacement Monitoring Centre -- and 98 percent of that displacement can be blamed on climate- and weather-related events. That includes not just people in poor countries but also many Americans displaced by Hurricane Sandy and other disasters.

Also picking up the homeless theme is Lord Nicholas Stern, a British economist famous for a groundbreaking 2006 report on the costs of climate change. He warns that hundreds of millions of people will likely be displaced in the near future. From The Guardian:

Read more: Climate & Energy