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Tagged with generation anthropocene

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Fracking and the road to a clean energy future

Photo by Shutterstock.

Those giant steel towers rising all across the United States -- they aren’t sucking oil from the ground. They’re pumping water into it, building enough pressure to break the rock and release 10-million-year-old fossil fuel. This is hydraulic fracturing, better known as fracking, and fighting it has become the cause célèbre of filmmakers, politicians, movie stars, and activists.

For good reason: The Environmental Protection Agency has found that fracking chemicals can contaminate drinking water supplies, gas companies have laid waste to rural landscapes, fracking can release methane, a powerful greenhouse gas, into the atmosphere, and scattershot state and federal regulations allow drillers to keep the ingredients of their chemical cocktails secret. Fracking has even been linked to earthquakes.

Given all this, I’d be willing to bet a large part of my small salary that one of the following statements elicits a strong protest from those fighting the good fight against fracking. Ready? Here we go:

Read more: Climate & Energy

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The Anthropocene explained, game-show style [AUDIO]

In 2000, Nobel Prize-winning chemist Paul Crutzen suggested that humans have had such profound and far-reaching impacts on the planet that we have ushered in a new geologic age – the Age of Man, or, as Crutzen called it, the Anthropocene. The idea has been bouncing around the halls of academia ever since, and in the last few years, it has jumped from the ivory tower into popular literature and a few geek-tastic conversations over beer. The notion that humans now run this joint seems to have struck a chord.

Just getting up to speed? The team from the Generation Anthropocene podcast at Stanford University sat down in the recording studio and tried to explain everything in five short minutes. (It ended up taking seven, but who’s counting?) Just for fun, they did it game-show style.

Read more: Climate & Energy

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Contrarian conservationist: Nature Conservancy’s chief scientist riles old-school greens

Photo by Dave Lauridsen.

Peter Kareiva has some unconventional ideas about conservation. Chief scientist at The Nature Conservancy, Kareiva is known in scientific circles as a provocateur who constantly questions the status quo -- a habit that has made him a few enemies among old-guard conservationists.

Among his crimes: He thinks environmentalists should empathize more with the “other side” -- the loggers, fishermen, and developers. He works with big smoke-puffing, water-polluting, chemical-creating corporations such as Dow Chemical, which he calls a “keystone species” in the corporate ecosystem. And he refuses to accept the conservation mantra that nature is fragile; in fact, he thinks nature is resilient in most cases.

By working with a broader constituency, Kareiva hopes environmental issues will become human issues, incorporated into our basic social, economic, and political fabric. His advice for conservationists? “Don’t be a special interest. We all want a better future … We just have to make it clear to people how healthy nature contributes to a better future.”

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Feed 9 billion people? We can do that, but it’s not going to be pretty

Photo by Lizard / Shutterstock.

Humanity has rocketed past the 7 billion mark, and if things continue as they’ve been going, there will be 9 billion of us by mid-century. That’s a lot of mouths to feed, but if you believe Stanford University biology professor Peter Vitousek, it can be done -- thanks in no small part to our mastery of that most taken-for-granted element, nitrogen.

While carbon has been getting all the media attention lately (see global warming, ocean acidification, and so on), Vitousek says that, for better or for worse, the human perturbation to the global carbon cycle pales in comparison to that of nitrogen.

Nitrogen is crucial for all life. It’s also all around us all the time – three-quarters of the air we breathe is nitrogen gas -- yet that vast reservoir is completely unavailable to creatures like humans. The power to “fix” nitrogen into a usable form rests with just a few types of microorganisms, and all other species in the world are propped up on their tiny shoulders.

That crucial task -- turning atmospheric nitrogen into a palatable new form -- has always set an upper limit on how much life Earth could support. Humanity, too, was held in check by the microbes until the early 20th century, when people first harnessed the power of fossil-fuel energy to attain the magic of nitrogen fixation. And with the Green Revolution after WWII, we implemented it on a massive industrial scale, boosting agricultural production to levels that were previously unimaginable.

Read more: Food

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Save the axolotl! Um, sure, but why?

The elusive axolotl. (Photo by John P. Clare.)

“Should we be like gods? Should we control the whole thing -- who gets food, what the weather is, where it will rain, what species get to live and die?”

-Susanne Moser, climate researcher, consultant, and Aldo Leopold fellow at the Stanford Woods Institute

About two months ago, the Generation Anthropocene radio team was invited to Santa Cruz for a conference for the Aldo Leopold Leadership program in environmental science. Leopold was one of the grand old dudes of the environmental movement, and you probably think that a program sporting his name screams “old white man reeking of patchouli.” But the conference was actually really cool.

Sure, there were plenty of old-school, save-nature-'cause-it's-really-neat conservationist types. But the Leopold fellows are world leaders in the environmental sciences. They’re smart as hell, if not a bit dorky. The Leopold program trains scientists to communicate their work with a broader audience, and its leaders are especially interested in catching the ear of the next generation.

As they put it, they’re tired of the “gray hairs” in the room. They want to know if we give a damn about climate change, mass extinction, and the global binge on natural resources.

Well, we wondered, why should we care?

Read more: Uncategorized

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In the climate struggle, a hunt for realistic solutions

A new study says the chance of a drought in Texas is 20 times more likely during a La Niña year now compared with the 1960s. Another predicts four feet of sea-level rise along the Eastern Seaboard over the next century. Have your eyes glazed over yet?

Call it apocalypse fatigue. Amid all the warnings about the impending threat, many of us just tune out. And no wonder: The problem can feel so large, and policymakers' sense of urgency so feeble, that it's easy to think that no one is taking action to lessen the threat to civilization.

This is why the work of Michael Wara, a climate scientist-turned-legal scholar, offers a needed shot of hope and excitement.

Read more: Climate & Energy

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Whales for sale: How cap-and-trade could finally save Flipper

What ever happened to “Save the whales”?

In the 1970s and ’80s, it was the quintessential environmentalist cause, the one that anyone who cared about the earth could unequivocally rally behind. It was the topic of international negotiations and treaties, and endless campaigns from environmental groups. (“Uh-oh, that guy down the street with the long hair has a clipboard, and is that a Greenpeace T-shirt he’s wearing? Quick, act busy!”)

These days, we’ve got bigger things to worry about -- climate change, mass extinction that could wipe out half of the species on the planet by mid-century, and a human population rocketing toward 9 billion.

So what happened to the whales, and all the rah-rah activist efforts to save them? Turns out: Not a whole lot. Sure, some whale species are doing much better, but overall, whaling regulation is still in the same place that it has been since 1982. Environmental groups like Greenpeace and Sea Shepherd are still fighting, and most countries have banned whaling, but a few maverick nations, including Japan and Norway, continue to kill them.

Leah Gerber thinks she has a solution.

Read more: Uncategorized

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Nature, revised: In a brave new world, we write the rules

“Eat this brand of yogurt and you’ll help save the planet,” the label on the carton intones. Um, really?

Maybe not, but the stories we tell ourselves about our choice of yogurt, or soap, or hybrid car nonetheless say a lot about how we, as a society, view ourselves and our relationship to the world around us.

Professor Ursula Heise, eco-critic in Stanford University's English department, spends her days untangling these narratives. She looks at everything from that yogurt carton to the Book of Revelation, dissecting how words, language, symbols, and discourse influence how environmental science is communicated, how the science itself is done, and how societies seek solutions to problems such as mass extinction and climate change.

Along the way, she says she’s found that some of our stories have become tired (i.e. the “end of the world” narrative first told in Revelation) and others at times delusional (see your grocery list). She also has a few new storylines to suggest for environmentalists and others who are serious about salvaging some scraps of the natural world.

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‘Canopy Meg’ wants you to care about the rainforest

Meg Lowman climbs trees for a living. A botanist by training, she wanted to study the rainforest canopy. The only way to get answers, she says, was to get up there herself. So back in the 1970s, using her own makeshift equipment, she figured out how.

“It’s amazing to me to think that only in the last 40 years have we explored the tops of trees,” says Lowman, the director of North Carolina’s Nature Research Center. Walking down a rainforest trail, it may seem like there’s a lot going on, but that’s really only a small slice of the whole picture, she says. “It’s almost like going to the doctor and if he checked your big toe and said ‘Oh, you’re perfectly healthy.' It’s just such a small part of the whole body of the forest.”

Unfortunately a lot of what she’s found up there isn’t nearly as fun as the process she uses to discover it.

Read more: Animals

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Strange things are afoot in the Arctic Circle

Kevin Arrigo.

A fundamental aspect of the Anthropocene is that there’s nowhere on Earth that is left unexplored; humans have now touched and altered every part of the planet. But the Arctic and the Antarctic remain some of the least understood parts of the world.

Kevin Arrigo, an oceanographer and professor at Stanford University, is one of the few people actively investigating the state of the polar regions. Much of his work relies on measurements from satellites, but occasionally he still ventures to the poles to “ground truth” his data. And what he finds there can come as a complete surprise.

Recently, during a NASA-funded trip to the Arctic to study nutrient cycling, Arrigo was part of a team that uncovered a hitherto unknown occurrence of undersea life -- three feet below young Arctic sea ice. “Under that ice was productivity as high as you’d find anywhere in the world,” said Arrigo. The discovery attracted a lot of attention in the scientific community; previously, nobody thought so much primary production under the ice was possible. And it's not something that could have been observed from space.

Does it look like this is a result of climate change? “That’s the big question," said Arrigo. "There’s a lot of follow-up work to be done now.”

Read more: Climate Change