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Earth Day Weekend Wrap Up

Now that Earth Day has turned 40, it apparently takes an entire weekend for all the celebrating. Anybody go to the concert on The Mall? We were planning on it but the weather was so lousy we headed to AFI Silver to see “Greenburg” instead. Sure, it’s not a terribly verdant way to wrap up such a big anniversary but this ain’t no banner year for the environment either.  Here are a few links to stories I’ve read over the birthday weekend:

The new Gallup poll released late last week provides fresh insight into just how much public concern has slipped over global warming and other environmental woes.  But no amount of denial can change the growing avalanche of scientific data pointing toward a warming world. For a comprehensive explanation, you can’t beat this piece in The Economist magazine. Sure, it gets a big bogged down and wonky in spots, but it will give you all the information you need next time you find yourself in cocktail party conversation with a skeptic.

Wine Lovers beware: Here’s a story on the new Climate Desk site explaining how global warming is wrecking havoc in vineyards.

Here’s a story on how the world’s remaining old-growth rainforests are being flushed down the toilet.

Rebecca Solnit reviews Bill McKibben’s new book “Eaarth” and mixes in a few climate change extras on TomDispatch.com.

“The party’s over” according to the Washington Post, reporting on the latest International Monetary Fund’s assessment of the state of the world economy. Funny, both the IMF and McKibben are essentially calling for the same thing: a downsizing and rethinking of what’s considered “the good life.”

The Coal industry is on the ropes as even the nation’s power plants vow to “go green,” says the Wall Street Journal. Plant operators are now turning to natural gas, the paper reports. But what about the growing controversy over fracking?

Selling(out) the environmental movement - Utne Reader senior editor Keith Goetzman posts on Washington Post and New York Times stories examining corporate influence inside Big Green groups. Calling it “the 800-pound gorilla in the environmental movement,” Goetzman notes that it’s about time the mainstream press examined questionable deals the nation’s leading environmental groups have cut with corporate polluters, not to mention the very corporate style in which many of these nonprofit groups operate today.

Ever since Johann Hari’s piece, “The Wrong Kind of Green,” ran in The Nation last month, a glaring spotlight is on environmental groups that shill for their corporate donors. Sadly, these unlikely alliances have turned our corporate watchdogs into corporate lapdogs.

I was quoted in Hari’s piece and my book provided some background in that story, which made me quite happy and proud to help get this conversation started; I’m not so happy about the way the climate change denial camp has discovered my research, however. An outfit calling itself Freedom Action has been running a full page ad in the Washington Examiner detailing the astronomical salaries of some of the country’s environmental leaders. WWF-US chief Carter Roberts makes about $510,000 a year; EDF’s Fred Krupp takes home $474,000, and so on. You can find the same info. on page 21 of my book or just pick up the Examiner! The only problem with Freedom Action is it’s trying to derail any attempt at climate action but mixing things up with kooky ideas about birth control meds that end up in the nation’s water supplies.

Democracy Now Show Today on Big Greens Standing in the Way of Climate Progress

The buzz created by Johann Hari’s hard-hitting article, The Wrong Kind of Green,  in The Nation magazine is finally generating some much needed attention for the outrageous behavior of some of our leading environmental groups. This morning, Amy Goodman of Democracy now interviewed Johann and me about Big Green groups such as Conservation International, the Sierra Club, Environmental Defense, and The Nature Conservancy – that are endorsing the climate policies sponsored by their corporate donors and allies in Washington. There is just no getting around the fact that the proposals backed by these groups will do little to head off runaway climate change. As Hari pointed out this morning, some of these policies will actually encourage more logging in tropical rainforests, despite ample evidence that we need those trees standing to sop up climate changing greenhouse gases.

Hari was very effective exposing these false solutions but left things on an optimistic note by mentioning the creative nonviolence campaigns climate activists have unfurled in the UK. I wish there had been more time so that I could have mentioned that the real grassroots of US enviornmentalism – not the big national groups that have been coopted by Washington’s deal making mentality and corporate donations – are also experiencing an encouraging growth spirt.

In doing some research for a magazine article and possibly a new book, I’ve been talking to activists all over the country in the last few weeks.  Julia “Judy” Bonds, who has been fighting mountaintop removal coal mining in her Appalachian community for a dozen years, says “you can’t put the genie back in the bottle.” In the last five years, she says a movement has begun to take shape and it’s just a matter of time before it sparks change. She likened the tense standoff between coal miners and mountaintop removal foes like herself to the bloody civil rights struggle started in Selma, Alabama in 1963 that  was widely credited with helping pass the 1965 Voting Rights Act.

Author Bill McKibbon is calling for people to take to the streets and join the 350.org civil disobedience campaign he launched. Tim DeChristopher, the guy who threw a wrench in the Dec. 2008 Bureau of Land Management auction of oil and gas leases on public lands, says we have to throw ourselves into the machine that’s threatening our existence.  McKibbon, DeChristopher, Julia “Butterfly” Hill, Mike Rosselle and many other activists have set up small radical groups that are all advocating that people – the average citizens like you and me – take to the streets to demand that President Obama and other lawmakers address global warming.

Considering how little we protest today, it’s hard to image the country will rise up and demand environmental sustainability. But they are doing it in the United Kingdom, so why not here? And if we don’t, who will? Bonds says her activism has shown her that politicians don’t lead, they merely follow the will of the people. It’s time for the people to take their fate into their own hands, she says.

The Nation Exposes Greenwashing by Big Green Groups

Check out this passionate piece in The Nation by British journalist Johann Hari. Perhaps I’m biased since I wrote an entire book on this subject and Hari quotes me in his story, but I think he argues persuasively that the large mainstream environmental groups in this country have sold out to their corporate sponsors and, when it comes to climate change, are selling us down the river (…or the seas as they rise!)

He certainly doesn’t mince words! He calls Conservation International and the Nature Conservancy “polluter-funded leeches sucking on the flesh of environmentalism, leaving it weaker and depleted.”

But it’s not all bleak and depressing. Hari concludes that:

Already, shining alternatives are starting to rise up across America. In just a year, the brilliant 350.org has formed a huge network of enthusiastic activists who are demanding our politicians heed the real scientific advice–not the parody of it offered by the impostors. They have to displace the corrupt conservationists as the voice of American environmentalism, fast.

Green Search Engine or Greenwashing?

Amazonas Photo via panda.org

“Internet users will from today be able to help protect the rainforest while they search,” proclaimed the UK newspaper, The Guardian, in a story today about a new search engine company called Ecosia that plans to donate 80 percent of its profits to the environmental group WWF.  Cash, the company’s founder says, that will reach into the billions of dollars each year.

That could mean a lot of forest conservation. According to a spokesman for the environmental group quoted in the story, the average user could protect 2,000 square meters of rainforest yearly. That’s the paltry size of a hockey field. But for every 1 percent of global internet users who migrate to Ecosia, an entire Switzerland-size chunk of Brazilian paradise could be saved, according to WWF. You can even activate a widget on your screen that tallies up how many acres of rainforest you are personally responsible for rescuing.

As someone who spends lots of time every day searching the Internet for work – as well as for movie show times and other such R&R reasons – I was horrified when I first learned how much energy search engines consume. According to one estimate, two Google searches produces as much carbon dioxide as it takes to boil a kettle of water. True, those figures are controversial; Google protested, asserting that most simple searches involve many fewer climate warming emissions. Whatever the true figures, the upshot is searching the web – like everything else in life – comes with carbon consequences.

Given the explosion of “green” search engines in the last few years, I’m apparently not the only one cringing over her tangled web footprint. The story lists several other so-called eco-friendly search platforms. They include EcoSearch, GoodSearch, GoodTree, Green Maven, EcoSeek, Treehoo and Ecocho.

Ecosia, the engine that debuted today,  says it’s the greenest of them all. But are any of them truly green?

While Ecosia claims to work as well as Bingo or Yahoo, the press release news story makes no mention of how its energy consumption stacks up next to estimates for Bingo, Yahoo … or Google. And, the other engines that claim to be green appear to be engaging in similar public relationality. EcoSearch, GoodSearch and GoodTree give part of their proceeds from advertising to environmental groups, while users of Treehoo and Ecoho can pay for carbon offsets, according to the story.

Worthy causes?  Probably.  Questions have been raised, however, about whether such carbon payoff schemes really cut the amount of pollution spewed into the Earth’s atmosphere, warming the planet. I devote an entire chapter in my book to the controversy over what some critics have equated with the Roman Catholic Church‘s medieval system of indulgences. Even the dandy Ecosia widget that tallies up the amount of rainforest saved could potentially work against reducing emissions; The notion that you can save trees with every click could conceivably encourage people to query more. At the least, it would ease our guilt without requiring us to actually consume less energy. Saving forests is an excellent idea for a variety of reasons – their ability to pull greenhouse gases out of the atmosphere and sequester them, being but one.  Business models like Ecosia’s, on the other hand, seem more gray than green.

Forest Advocates Float Greenwashing Claims

At the DC Energy Expo last weekend, it was rather disappointing to talk to a dealer of energy-efficient windows who had no idea where the wood that frames his windows comes from.

All he knows is that the manufacturers promise it is certified “environmentally friendly.”

“Green building” has become a big business.  By 2013, one in every five new homes will be an energy-efficient, eco-friendly abode, according to one estimate.

But what does “green” mean? There’s a huge battle underway over that question.  One of the bitterest fronts is being fought over sustainable forestry.

Last week, the environmentalists at ForestEthics engaged in a new skirmish against the country’s largest forest certification program, the Sustainable Forestry Initiative, or SFI, a nonprofit that has grown rapidly in recent years. But, for many environmentalists, SFI is a front organization for Big Timber that threatens to hijack the burgeoning market for sustainable lumber.

ForestEthics did its best to publicize those concerns at the country’s leading green building convention in Phoenix last week; It floated a helium-filled banner over the SFI booth inside the convention center that read: “SFI=Greenwash.”

TreeHugger
picked up on the controversy today. SFI has also responded. For more details on greenwashing and green building, here’s a story I wrote for ArchitectureWeek.

Today’s Sustainability News

Some upscale vinegars – particularly high-priced balsamics – tip the scale on lead content too, this report finds.

California‘s green efforts – from using recycled paper to fighting global warming – found to be more talk than walk by this new investigative report.

Mother Jones
says California‘s Century as the country’s so-called Salad Bowl is about to be over. Instead, the central valley could become the next Dust Bowl.

MoJo’s Blue Marble blog has a post about how the author was “bambloozled” into buying sheets advertised as eco-friendly bamboo when they were really made out of icky rayon with bamboo content. The Federal Trade Commission was also unamused. It slapped the hand of the manufacturer, a company called Bamboosa, last month. Read all about it.

Do you know that it took cyanide to make the gold wedding band, gold earrings or watch you’re wearing? That’s right, the stuff spies carry around in case they get caught by the enemy and need to die really quickly. Well, gold mines around the world use cyanide to separate the gold from the rest of the mine rubble. It’s all safe enough, mining companies say, that is – until the cyanide seeps into the ground and drinking water suppliers. Here’s a story about the devastating effects it can have when it does.

Clorox has announced that it’s taking the chlorine out of its bleach. But the move isn’t motivated by the company’s self-proclaimed environmental ethos. Read what really appears to be fueling the change.

Is Your Recycling Being Tossed with the Trash?

Good Morning folks!

BasuraDC9

Trash and Recycling waiting for a ride.

It’s a particularly fine, crisp autumn morning here in D.C. and I’m feeling fine. How about you?

My mood can be attributed at least in part to the fact that a story I spent months on hits news stands today.

I don’t want to spoil the ending for you or anything but, in a nutshell, here’s the scoop: Some private haulers in DC only pretend to recycle your carefully separated newspapers, cardboard and bottles. Instead, they often dump it into their trucks along with the trash, then cart it off to landfills or transfer stations that supply the dumps. That’s what I found after spending months tailing garbage trucks and staking out dumpsters behind apartment complexes, condos and commercial establishments all over the District of Columbia.

What’s perhaps even more surprising, the city hasn’t issued a single ticket for this offense in years. Here’s a quote from Nancee Lyons, a DPW spokesperson, that didn’t make it into today’s Washington City Paper story, an online version of which can be found here.

“Currently we have no authority to write citations unless they are at a DC trash transfer station,” Lyons says.

In other words, inspectors, who see a hauler scofflawing the recycling on a DC street can’t do a thing about it. That seems to make a mockery of the city’s recycling law, particularly considering how often this happens.

Have you ever seen trash guys throwing out recycling and trash together in the same truck? Please share your stories in the comments section.

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