Author Archives: greendistrict

Taking a century-old rowhouse “net zero”

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The house scored “net zero” on its energy audit

 

My latest green building story focuses on a DC rowhouse overhauled for energy efficiency. Then the developer slapped on almost as many solar panels as the roof would hold, turning this architectural relic into a cutting edge “extremely green” home. The new owner may be saying bye-bye to electric bills. Read the story in the Washington Post today!

New documentary highlights growing risks to whistleblowers

Courtesy of the filmmakers

Earlier this week, my friend Tom Devine invited me to a special screening of the new documentary, “War on Whistleblowers,” at the Newsmuseum. Tom is the legal director at the Government Accountability Project, a group that has represented hundreds of people in over the last few decades who have exposed criminal behavior and other wrong-doing by their employers, often at great personal cost.

The 1-hour program doesn’t include cases of environmental malfeasants but Tom can be heard in voiceover at the start of the film talking about the persecution faced by historic figures like Copernicus and Galileo for pointing out truths that seem so obvious to us today–such things as the fact that world really isn’t flat. While those two Renaissance-era gentleman may have risked even more, the ire they evoked for speaking truth to power seem generally similar to the attacks weathered by Michael Mann and other scientists for sounding alarm bells about climate change.

The film also touches on another topic that comes up frequently on this blog: how corporations that partner with public entities tend to call the shots in those relationships, often at the detriment of the public good.

The film interviews Franz Gayl, a Pentagon science adviser for the Marine Corp who blew the lid off the Marine’s failure to provide troops in Iraq with life-saving armored vehicles. The backstory: the corporate lobbying power behind the Humvee was simply greater than that of the Mine Resistant Ambush Protected vehicle, though the MRAPs, as they are called, have proven much safer. The program also features Michael DeKort, a Lockheed Martin project manager who exposed design and other failures in a new fleet of ships for the U.S. Coast Guard; he fear he problems could lead to avoidable deaths at sea. Both men first tried to bring their concerns to the companies and government agencies involved before going public. DeKort ended up out of a job and Gayl nearly suffered the same fate until a public campaign drew national attention to his plight.

That scenario — in which corporate interests and profit margins trump other concerns, even loss of life — is one that plays out in the corporate sustainability realm, as well. Many of the world’s largest corporations have  struck up partnerships and sponsorship deals with environmental groups. The millions of dollars big companies channel to environmental organizations each year amount to a tiny fraction of their revenues (much less than they spend, say, on advertising), but it’s an increasingly large part of the annual operating budgets of many nonprofit groups. The cash not only buys the companies invaluable greenwash cover, it has misdirected some of the world’s largest and most respected environmental groups from their original mission, turning them into corporate mascots instead of the watchdogs of public good. If you want details, read my book or check out the articles on this site’s “about” page.

But getting back to the whistleblower documentary, the very cool thing is this: The producers will send you a copy for free so that people around the country can hold house parties and otherwise share with friends and neighbors. Click here for the details.

Are these apps changing our lives?

Hello! I’ve been writing a lot lately about how new apps and the proliferation of smart phones are changing our lives. Since I’ve neglected this blog for way too many months, I wanted to bring you up to date with some of these recent articles.

capbikeshareLast week, the Washington City Paper ran my cover story on the “sharing economy.” In a departure from my usual third-person style, I was able to call on couple of years of personal experiences as a “collaborative consumer” for this story. I also talked to other people using D.C.’s car and bike shares, Airbnb and eatFeastly hosts, and interviewed pundits who say the burgeoning “sharing economy” is ushering in big changes in the way we live.

Here’s an excerpt from the story:

Sharing enthusiasts see a future with less pollution, inefficiency, and injustice—not to mention fewer cars. But sharing services aren’t always green (you can, after all, share a private jet). They seem more likely—not less—to accentuate class differences and perpetuate the same bad behavior on commercial, labor, and environmental fronts that everything that came before them did. And while sharing depends on high-tech social media and smartphone apps, in many ways the collaborative world harkens back to the past: to barter systems; the hyper-localism of preautomobile societies; and the almost small-town importance of reputation, which will increasingly follow us around as “data exhaust” that could replace the credit rating. Still, the changes afoot are propelled by decidedly 21st century realities: population growth, booming cities, rising costs, and shrinking personal space.

READ THE STORY

Photo courtesy of Asthmapolis

Photo courtesy of Asthmapolis

Earlier in February, the Washington Post published my latest story on “geomedicine,” an emerging field in which doctors and other caregivers use mapping tools and “Big Data” to gain insights into their patients’ lives so they can offer better treatment and advice.

The story features Asthmapolis, a company that makes a new asthma inhaler that has a GIS sensor for mapping the patient’s every puff. Other experiments in “geomedicine” are using social medial platforms to share information, not just about illnesses, but about environmental exposures, as well as mapping farmers’ markets, healthy eateries, parks and other recreational outlets. It’s proponents say the geo-mapping can help us understand the environmental factors driving an individual’s health problems and then map out ways to address them.

READ THE STORY

ItalyTrashScientific researchers are also using geographical information and mapping to delve more deeply into the precise origins of illnesses and how environmental factors play a role in health. Italian researchers, for instances, have linked skyrocketing cancer rates, birth defects and other illnesses in communities outside of Naples to mafia-related dumping of industrial waste in an area that has come to be known as “the triangle of death.”

READ THE STORY

Will Congress bargain away the last of old growth forests?

Tongass National Forest by amanderson2. Creative Commons license

My latest story for Alternet examines how some of the country’s last remaining ancient forestland may be bargained away this year as a political favor to the campaign benefactors of one U.S. Senator.

READ THIS STORY

New report takes aim at corporate funding for climate denial

Image

NASA’s Aqua satellite, dedicated to advancing our understanding of Earth’s water cycle. Creative Commons license

The Union of Concerned Scientists has just published a report outing corporations that publicly back action on global warming, while quietly bankrolling climate change denier groups.

While the report acknowledged that not all corporations are engaged in this sort of Jekyll & Hyde behavior, it says many have adopted a strategy that “allows companies to maintain a public image of climate consciousness while, behind the scenes, undermining climate science and policy in powerful ways.” The report goes on the say:

While all companies in our sample stated they were taking voluntary internal action to reduce carbon emissions, half of them also misrepresented some element of established climate science in their public communications.

It’s worth pointing out that several of the two-faced companies profiled in today’s report are key partners and benefactors of the country’s biggest environmental groups. Companies like ExxonMobil Corp., General Electric Co., and Alcoa Inc. have bankrolled nature centers, conservation projects and public education campaigns, among other things. (For more details, check out my book.) Companies often spend more money publicizing their environmental projects than they spent on the good works in the first place. In contrast, you seldom hear much about the money channeled to groups such as the Heartland Institute that continue to claim climate change is a hoax.

You can find the report here.

Some of today’s coverage is here, here and here.

WWF faces new charges of corporate greenwashing

The story also discusses "The Pact with the Panda," another WWF exposé aired on Germany's WDR TV network.

from “The Pact with the Panda,” a German TV exposé on WWF

German magazine, DER SPIEGEL, has a new article examining whether one of the world’s largest and best known environmental groups, WWF, protects nature or “merely offer[s] the illusion of help?”

In a nutshell: The story concludes that WWF’s “business model,” which relies on funding from big companies, is better at corporate greenwashing than preserving nature and endangered species.

The magazine sent reporters to South America and Indonesia to investigate WWF’s agribusiness roundtable initiatives on how to reduce habitat destruction caused by large-scale soybean and palm oil plantations and other commodity crops. In the last dozen years or so, WWF has received accolades in some circles (and criticism in others) for bringing together agribusiness companies, international grain traders, and corporate-friendly nonprofit groups. The resulting “sustainable” soybeans and palm oil are finally starting to enter international commodities markets. But SPIEGEL found some troubling discrepancies between hype and reality:

In Brazil, an agricultural industry executive talked about the first shipload of sustainable soybeans, certified in accordance with WWF standards, to reach Rotterdam last year, amid a flurry of PR hype. The executive had to admit, however, that he wasn’t entirely sure where the shipment had come from. In Sumatra, members of a tribal group reported how troops hired by WWF partner Wilmar had destroyed their houses, because they had stood in the way of unfettered palm oil production.

For anyone interested in the growing backlash against corporate-sponsored environmental groups, the story is worth a read.

UPDATE: Another WWF corporate partner, Ikea, is accused of logging old growth forests. The 40-member Global Forestry Coalition has just issued a report charging the company’s Swedwood subsidiary with clearcutting a biodiverse Russian forest. The coalition maintains that  trees as old as 600 years are being felled to keep up with sales of Ikea’s popular home furnishings. The company has strongly denied the charges pointing to its lengthy environmental credentials. Besides its forest campaign with WWF,  it holds several Forest Stewardship Council certifications. In this article, Ikea defends its sustainability record and denies harvesting ancient trees. In fact, it says, the trees being cut down in Karelia, Russian, average 160-years-old.

Hmmmm … how long does the average Ikea dinner table last?

More coverage here and here.

Geo-medicine: Mapping our pollution exposures

My latest post on The Atlantic’s Cities website explores geo-medicine, a new field that uses GIS mapping to correlate environmental conditions to health risks like heart attacks and cancer. There’s even a free app that allows you to map the types of toxic exposures in everyplace you’ve ever lived and correlate them to the likelihood of developing cancer or dying of a heart attack.

Beyond charting the potential for your own personal doomsday, however, geo-medicine has many other applications: It can allow doctors to zoom in on a patient’s life to create a geographically enhanced medical history. Or it can zoom out to give public health officials, city planners and activists detail-rich insights on how to improve the well-being of entire communities.

Check out my story and let me know what you think!

The Potomac: America’s most beleaguered river, new report

The Potomac is the nation’s most imperiled river, according to a report issued today by the nonprofit group, American Rivers.

Pescados by Daquella manera (Daniel Lobo)
Creative Commons license

The river, which supplies drinking water to five million people in the Greater Washington region, suffers from a bad case of  runoff from laws and factory farms, alike. those woes have turned the Potomac into a spawning ground for so-called “intersex fish” – male fish born with ovaries. Yikes! Scientists have linked the chemicals in lawn fertilizer and “chicken litter” (manure produced in large quantities at the region’s poultry farms) that get washed into the waterways where they wreak havoc of fish reproduction and create habitat-crippling dead zones bereft of oxygen, among other things.

The Washington Post today notes that U.S. Congress has failed to act despite growing evidence that what’s happening to the fish may be a disturbing sign of the human health implications. In fact, sentiment on Capitol Hill is moving in the other direction with Republicans periodically launching attempts to roll back the Clean Air Act, reporter Darryl Fears notes, quoting environmentalists.

The landmark federal law, which turns 40-years-old this year, has led to major improvements in the health of the nation’s waterways, experts say. At the time of its passage in 1972, some U.S. rivers were such reeking open sewers that they sometimes caught fire. Nevertheless, the Potomac is one of ten that continue face the most serious ongoing problems.

Besides the Potomac, today’s top ten list, of sorts, includes the following:

  • Green River (which runs through Wyoming, Utah and Colorado)
  • Chattahoochee River (Georgia)
  • Missouri River (nine states in the central United States)
  • Hoback River (Wyoming)
  •  Grand River (Ohio)
  • Skykomish River (Washington)
  • Crystal River (Colorado)
  •  Coal River (West Virginia)
  •  Kansas River (Kansas)

NGO “dissolves” after questions raised over corporate funding

prescription drugs in bottle

By Somegeekintn. Creative Commons license

The Washington Post reports today on the demise of the nonprofit group, the American Pain Foundation, that used its funding from big pharmaceutical and medical device companies to play down “the risks associated with opioid painkillers while exaggerating the benefits from the drugs.”

Today’s story follows up on an exposé published last December that used the foundation’s annual report to explain how more than 90 percent of its $5 million budget came from the makers of such drugs as Oxycontin and Vicodin. Those revelations led to a Senate Finance Committee investigation launched yesterday. Also yesterday, the foundation reportedly announced it could no longer remain “operational” and would “dissolve.”

Had its corporate funders fled from the scandal? The post report says the foundation was not taking questions yesterday. But it would not be the first time a corporation has ditched a nonprofit partner after issues of propriety arose.

The example that comes to mind is The Nature Conservancy’s Land Legacy program with Centex, the homebuilder. For every home the company product, it kicked back $35 as a donation to TNC. Eyebrow-raising considering that other environmental groups had criticized Centex as a purveyor of suburban sprawl, a scourge to nature preservation. The deal created internal tension and discord among Conservancy staffers, according to a 2003 Washington Post expose on the nature group. What did Centex do? It took the program over to the Conservation Fund, and after Centex and Pulte Homes merged in 2009, forming PulteGroup, the fund was renamed the PulteGroup Land Legacy Fund. Besides renaming the arrangement, the company and the NGO have gotten savvier in how they discuss it. Today, they tout it as a $2.5 million “revolving fund” paying for “the protection of more than 73,000 acres, achieving dramatic results for wetlands, forests and waterways coast to coast.”

Questionable corporate funding of nonprofit groups is so often in the news these days (THINK: ALEC, Heartland Institute, the American Diabetes AssociationEnvironmental Defense Fund, and the Sierra Club, among others.) new revelations seem to have lost much of their shock value. For instance, you’d think CF’s dealings with the PulteGroup could tinge its reputation just as it sullied TNC’s, but apparently that’s not a good enough reason to turn down the cash.

Questionable corporate largess isn’t just limited to nonprofit groups. Tom Philpott has a post on Mother Jones today questioning the independence of universities that take research grants from Big Ag companies such as Monsanto.

Nonprofit groups are embedded in nearly every aspect of life these days (even ProPublica, the investigative newsroom that produced today’s exposé, is an NGO). But  the Internal Revenue Service doesn’t require nonprofits to tell the public much about their funding sources, which  leaves reporters and other watchdogs reliant on the information the groups choose to share. Many groups voluntarily publish at least a partial roster of donors, which ironically, exactly what ProPublica did; reporters used a donor list in its annual report to connect the dots between its corporate relationships and its public advocacy.

But how often do organizations leave out donations that might lead to awkward questions about corporate cash? As last year’s $26 million Sierra Club-Chesapeake Gas scandal illustrates, it’s much too easy to hide these relationships and obscure their influence.

What’s the fallout when green groups “partner” with arms makers?

"Bombs Away!" by Anxious223 Chris Dixon. Creative Commons license.

"Bombs Away!" by Anxious223 Chris Dixon. Creative Commons license.

About a year ago Conservation International was pilloried by a couple of British videographers posing as executives of the arms maker Lockheed Martin. They bamboozled a C.I. official in London into a meeting where she outlined several ways the nonprofit could “partner” with the arms maker under terms that looked a lot like greenwashing. You can watch the video here and judge for yourself if C.I. did anything wrong.

I had a few issues with the “exposé;” chiefly that C.I. already had dealings with B2 bomber maker Northrop Grumman, whose chairman and CEO Wes Bush is a member of its board of directors. And another big group, The Nature Conservancy, was already in the pay of Lockheed. These existing relationships undermined the shock value the scamsters were going for.

Still, you’d think the critique, or at least the bad press coverage it generated, would inspire reflection about the reputational damage some corporate deals can bring down on a nonprofit organization. More specifically, is a company that makes weapons of war an appropriate partner for a group whose mission is saving the Earth’s biodiversity? Well, if those questions were raised, they didn’t lead to change.

C.I. has just cranked up its P.R. machine in service of a new partnership with Northrop, “a unique and innovative professional development program for public middle and high school science teachers.”

In a nutshell: The Northrop Grumman Foundation will pay for 16 teachers from four U.S. public school systems to visit CI’s Tropical Ecology Assessment and Monitoring Network’s Volcan Barva site inside La Selva Biological Station and Braulio Carrillo National Park in Costa Rica.

“We believe that supporting professional development opportunities for teachers will have the greatest impact on engaging students in the science, technology, engineering and mathematics fields. We expect this program will help cultivate the next generation of environmental stewards,” said Sandy Andelman, vice president at Conservation International in a press release the two partners issued April 19.

Whoa! That statement requires a reality check. According to the U.S. Department of Education, there are 3.6 million K to 12 grade teachers in the United States spread across 14,000 public school districts. The group selected for this program doesn’t even come close to representing 1 percent of the teachers in the country.

While they will surely have a rewarding time and may even return home to inspire their students, the scale of the program is too small to have the impact Andelman claims. Like so many of these corporate-conservationist joint ventures they are more symbolic than substantive.

They deliver real public relations boons for Northrop, however, which might explain why the Falls Church, Vir. -based company features the “ECO classroom” as a top story on its homepage.

Hat tip to Wiki Scraper for writing the search tool that brought this story to my attention.

While we’re on the subject of corporate-environmentalist ties, here’s another couple of recent stories that deserve mentions:

This upbeat Q & A featuring Wal-Mart chairman Rob Walton and C.I.’s CEO Peter Seligmann comes out as Wal-Mart as struggles to overcome awkward questions about its greening policies and a recent bribery scandal.

Many environmental groups, including C.I., don’t count donations from corporate-tied foundations as “corporate” cash. Instead, they report money from the likes of the Walton Family Foundation and the Northrop foundation as foundation grants, which helps them claim that only a fraction of their funding comes from corporate sources.  For that matter, C.I. doesn’t tally the money it receives from scions like Rob Walton in the corporate column either. But Walton, in this article, doesn’t talk like someone whose relationship to C.I. is detached from the workings of the family firm, even if he does say he leaves the day-to-day greening to “middle managers.”

Environmental Defense Fund was caught in a similar controversy last week. The group claims to take zero corporate dollars but the Walton Family Foundation granted EDF $16 million in 2009 and continuing support equal to more than $7 million in 2010, among other support.

Meanwhile, the Washington Post reports this morning that an obscure private foundation threatened to pull funding from the Potomac Riverkeeper group unless it dropped its opposition to a trading scheme proposed as part of the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency‘s Chesapeake Bay cleanup.

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